The Beauty and Chaos of Free Play


No, not a beautiful provocation but instead a picture of the real chaos that results from children deeply engaged in self-directed and exploratory play with materials – beautiful nonetheless.

Alison Gopnik, in her book The Gardener and the Carpenter, muses that children are designed to explore and that “the messiness of children makes a special contribution to human evolvability.” (p. 31-32) I take heart in this message, especially as I think of the creative energy and the jubilant manipulation and transportation of materials and loose parts I witness in my own Kindergarten classroom each day and the resulting chaotic mess of those materials that often results.

I love the joyful learning that I see when children are engaged in free play, exploration and creative thought with materials, using them in their own innovative ways as loose parts. I often find any carefully presented centres I try to create are soon used in novel and other-than-intended ways and I have to resist (not always with success) the urge to say, ‘but wait…”. And while resisting the urge often results in a gigantic tidying time, it also results in unexpected and joyful learning. (The photograph attached to this post was an incredible jungle joyfully and collaboratively designed and an experience rich in learning.) I often have to ask myself, is it more important for children to engage in this exploratory free play or to engage with the lovely provocation I have so carefully laid out?

Gopnik mentions the need for providing a protected space for exploration (p. 36). I believe the need for the environment to support, and for the educators to entertain, this free exploration is important. As Vivian Gussin Paley reminds us in her book A Child’s Work, “There is no activity for which young children are better prepared than fantasy play,” and that it is “…the glue that binds together all other pursuits.” (p. 8)  From this type of play comes important learning and, from our observation of it, the educator research we need to further support the children in their learning. Providing a ‘protected space’ (physically and cognitively) for this type of play is not simple and it is not unplanned. It requires a carefully planned environment with great attention to materials and organization. It requires thoughtful interactions with children during their play. It requires intentional teaching of routines and the fostering of self-regulation. It requires astute observation of the actions, words and intentions of the young learners involved. Above all, it requires patience, understanding and a strong belief in the capabilities of young learners.

I find it is always a balancing act – honouring and providing time and space for the chaos of children’s free and exploratory play and at the same time provoking their thinking, learning and development by engaging them with focused materials, discussion and documentation. Such is the art – and joyful chaos – of early years education.

This post originally appeared on Sparks and Gems


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