Understanding Play and Its Value: An Article by Lyn van Lidth de Jeude

Every month during the school year, the Bowen Children's Centre puts out a newsletter, into which my mother, Lyn, pours her time, and considerable knowledge and experience, and usually this newsletter carries extremely valuable information for parents just learning how our children work. So I've decided that, once in a while, when it relates to things we're dealing with in our lives, I'll post her monthly article on this blog. You can view the original newsletter, here: (link to .pdf)

Understanding Play and Its Value
Lyn van Lidth de Jeude

As adults, we like to say that “Play is a Childs Work”, but what do children say? Generally, regardless of the activity, children say that “If they choose to do it… its play and if they are asked to do it… its work”.

Quality play time” is play that is rich in child-initiated activity. These activities may be guided or enhanced by parents and educators, but the essential learning component is that they are the product of the childs interests.
  • Child initiated play pays attention to the process of the play. It is not a means to an end.
  • Adult initiated play reduces a childs opportunity to make rules and define the process.

Curiosity is driven by authentic questions and hands on learning. Authentic experience allows the child opportunity to predict, experience and evaluate. Childrens play grows and matures in a predictable way.

There are four play styles that early childhood educators use to define different styles of play among children. Play styles progress from one form to the next and all styles of play overlap with each other.

1) The first independent play of children is Solitary Play.
Solitary play (such as object play) allows the child to investigate, make discoveries and builds a cognitive structure of understanding which supports other styles of play.
Once a child is able to play alone he/she will begin to watch the play of other children, especially those of a similar age or developmental level.

2) Observational Play (i.e. one child watching another play) builds a social understanding on which a child may begin interaction with others.

3) Parallel Play (two children playing the same game, side by side with little interaction except to exchange toys) allows a child to use the skills gathered in solitary and observational play to prepare for social integration. Parallel play scaffolds children into socially co-operative play.

4) Complex Socio-Dramatic Play (interactive role play between children) allows children to rehearse social activities and refine social skills such as how to join a group and how to accept a delay in personal gratification. This style of play is the type of play that most adults remember from their own childhood.

Although Physical Play is not generally considered a play style it has a unique and important role. Physical play enhances childrens understanding of their bodies as they work to master skills (such as hanging on the overhead ladder and kicking a ball). They watch others engaged in similar physical activities to help them understand technique and work together with other children toward organized physical games (such as catch and tag). For many children the kinaesthetic nature of their play makes this the most effective avenue for learning.

In Early Childhood centres that offer daycare and preschool, children learn from their natural activities in an adult organized environment. Children in this environment develop a social understanding of their role, their abilities and their power as they begin to understand what is in the minds of others.

What is the Adults Role?
  • To be a listener and documenter
  • To provide appropriate materials at the right time
  • To allow that all ideas are improvable and unfinished
  • To give voice to the childs experience and learning

Authentic play is an indicator of a childs health and well-being. Play and learning are one and the same thing and cannot be separated as play is truly how children learn.

Self-Directed Art and Learning

About 17 years ago, now, I nervously went in to teach my very first class. I had been hired by a couple of parents to teach their young children art. I was 17. I was terrified. I don't remember what I asked the first girl I spoke to, but I will never forget her answer: "I can only draw angels." She pulled out a pen and paper and drew some patterned "angels" -- a whole row of them! I was heartbroken to hear her limit herself that way, and wanted nothing more than to show her that she could be free from her angels. It was at that moment that I became an art teacher. Thank you, Sarah.

I came to my views on open-ended art naturally. My mother is a music therapist and Reggio Emilia preschool teacher at Bowen Island Preschool and my father owns BC Playthings toy store, where he promotes child-centred activity and natural toys. In both this preschool and this toy store, colouring books are not allowed. And furthermore, every person I have taught or worked with has driven the idea that open-ended learning is essential deeper into my being.

Not only is open-endedness essential for creativity, but the ability to creatively explore is essential for learning anything! A teacher-directed activity implies that the teacher knows best, while self-directed learning implies that the learner's thoughts and actions are most valuable. As soon as those thoughts or actions lose perceived value, the learner loses interest, and the desire to explore and learn begins to slip away. Some people are very attached to following instructions, but I feel this is a result of lack of confidence, or even of failure to measure up. Then we have to remind ourselves: if we are only looking to measure up, then how can we ever reach our true potential, which may very well be higher than up, or simply in a different direction? We have to give ourselves the freedom to go in any direction, to go where our authentic selves will naturally go.

The importance of self-direction in learning also has little to do with age. This is why I often choose to use the term self-directed over child-directed or child-centred; I believe this applies to people of all ages. People of any age will learn more when they are inspired to explore; the only change that comes with age is that many of us have our independence squashed as we grow up. That doesn't mean it's gone. It's just in need of some nourishment. Give a born-and-raised Canadian adult a handful of mosaic squares, some glue and a piece of paper, and she will likely begin gluing the squares into some recognizable shape or pattern. Give them to my unschooled six-year-old, and she might fold them into tiny "origamis" and decorate herself with them. She would make a potion with the glue, and use the paper to wrap up her sorted stacks of coins, in case she might one day want to take them to the store, and then it might be handy to have them sorted (this happened, today). Maybe she'd just glue the squares one on top of the other, on the back of her own hand, and call it a wart. It's not a project; it's just what she's doing: exploring. I feel that one of my most important responsibilities as a parent and teacher is to avoid squashing that creativity with my own ideas and expectations.

So what if people ask for help to reach a specific end-result? With some things like origami I've created an example, following directions, and then experimented with it, to see how I could create my own unique product, thereby giving students the freedom to be unique, as well. I'm just like they are: experimenting with somebody else's technique. Often the outcomes of my experiments aren't what I've hoped for, and this is part of the journey. Other times I supply a range of alternatives, and suggest that perhaps a combination of these methods or materials might yield interesting results. Then we all get to experimenting, together.

It isn't ever up to me, as the teacher (or parent) to know the answers, because how could I possibly know everything? Then the best thing students could strive for is to know what I know, and really, that would be unfortunate. I'm just not that knowledgeable. I sincerely hope that every person I teach reaches his/her own personal goals that have nothing to do with me. My 8-year-old son already understands much more than I do about physics -- thank goodness! But that doesn't stop me from taking his journey with him. What I know is how to say "wow -- show me how that pneumatic thingy you designed works!" My role as a teacher (as I see it) is to help people find their own creativity and desire to learn. That's it! Sometimes it seems there will never be an end to the adults who come to my classes, wanting me to impart my artist-skills to them, and to whom I hope I have instead opened a door to finding their own skills. (Not to mention the many skills and much wisdom that I glean from them...)

Unschooling Outtake: Or what if, in her free reign of art-making, my 6-year-old decides to cut up my precious handmade clothing, paint books with jam, or decorate my furniture and dishes with acrylic paint or glued on "fairy-paintings"? Well, then... I cry. Oh well. Lesson in guarding/respecting personal property -- check!

More reading (because really, everybody should):
Robert Schirrmacher, Ph.D: Child-Centered Art vs. Teacher-Directed Projects

Susan Striker's book, Young at Art (I haven't read this, but it looks good)

Tom Anderson: Art Education for Life

Wandering Learning

You can click these photos to enlarge them!
My kids are like every other kid: infinitely amazing, if you just look at them with loving-parent eyes. :--)  They have their difficulties and their passions, though, and some things that they manage to totally impress people with.

Both kids are pretty passionate little scientists. They know more about how stuff works, local plant and animal species/habitat/ecosystems/reproduction, and the details of environmental concerns than many adults I know. This also encourages a rather advanced understanding of compassion, community and relationships, and, even more importantly, a sense of their importance in the world, and a feeling that there is an infinity of exciting universe to discover. In short: a passion for learning.

Guess why they have this? Because at least once a week for most of their lives (sometimes much more often) we walk in the forests. It's usually the same forest, even: the park beside our home. We just walk around, there, sometimes build forts, sometimes climb trees, sometimes look for wild food, sometimes are just on our way from one place to another... but always, always, we look at everything around us. And yes, I do know a bit about the forest ecology, myself... but not really enough. We make up names for the things we don't know, and look them up in our books, at home. We look at what various plants and animals, as well as earth, air, and watersystems are doing. We talk about what's happening, and sometimes get so inspired about our ideas that we go home and Google them for more information. We notice the year passing, not in distinct seasons, but in an endless parade of activity, and this is how we learn about the world.

Yesterday we went out mushrooming. We were on a quest for more of the delicious Chicken of the Woods we'd harvested the day before, but found none. So around and around the forest we tromped, scouring rotten logs for the delicious mushrooms, and instead finding centipedes, squirrels, frogs, birds (& vulture feathers!), tiny fish and skeeters in the now barely-flowing creek, another creek that is not yet flowing, again, but which we know is a wide, untraversable stream, all winter. We checked out the trees that have fallen this summer: two big ones. And talked about the different sounds they made (we heard them fall from our house), and talked about the interesting geometry of the other trees they took out in their falls, and how that could have happened. We also found mushrooms; far too many to look up and name, since there are apparently 2 or 3 times as many fungi as vascular plant species, in BC. But these are the few that took our fancy: yellow jelly fungus, artists' bracket and parchment fungi, all sorts of polypores, black-eyed parasols, toothed jellies (we think), acres of some unidentified parasol-like mushrooms, some tiny dark brown unidentified blobby life-form, and finally a bright pink bubblegum-like blob with milky droplets on it. It rather reminded us of a sea-slug! These photos are just from the few mushrooms we took home to identify (I didn't have my act together enough to bring the books or the camera with me, this time). Some other things we noticed on our walk were that most leaves really haven't turned, yet, but the licorice root is starting to be revived from all the rain (it dries out over the summer), spruce cones all over the ground, suddenly, some mushy poop (Was it deer poop? Why did the deer have diarrhea?), banana slugs are out in force right now, and seem to prefer certain types of mushrooms, most of which turned out to be edible, when we checked, and the interesting fact that the Run For the Ferry markers had been forgotten on the trail we followed, home. Oh -- and all that garbage! The dump road, which is the trail that runs through the park, used to be the road to the dump, and naturally is littered on either side (deep into the woods) with garbage of every description, but including a lot of broken glass and old rusty home equipment from 50 to 100 years ago. Interesting to explore, from a historical perspective (we thought the museum should have some of those things), but also we wondered at length why the GVRD didn't clean it up, when they made the park.

Is this going on a bit too long? That is how it is! Endless exploration! How can I possibly distill the learning and exploration we shared in 2 or 3 hours of walking down into one paragraph? I can't! Learning Happens. (I want us all to have t-shirts that say that...) In that one walk the four of us (Mama, Pappa, and 2 kids) made deep journeys in the areas of (to name just the major ones) geology, biology, geometry, physics, math, history, social studies, politics, ecology, and psychology (Why does this walk in the rain make us all so happy? What is it about being out here that is so good for our family? Are all people like this?)

Today I was talking about making our required annual learning plans with our homelearners' support teacher at Island Discovery. We so don't fit the forms!! She knows this. This is pretty much routine frustration for unschooling families (and for our poor teacher, trying to work within a system that doesn't fit the families she's working with), but nevertheless it's a frustration I thought I'd write a bit about, here. Those forms make it seem as though all of our learning can be done by planning! No way! I want the school boards to understand what we're doing; I want them to know that today, while I discussed their ridiculous requirements for homelearners, my 8-year-old son who can't spell to save his life and flat-out refuses to accept traditional education, left the room where his sister was participating in a group activity for grade 1-4's, and stood upstairs near me, pressed between a door and a wall, listening to the class he dearly wanted to join: the older kids learning about the molecules that form DNA. Why does he know and care about DNA? From our walks in the forest.

This isn't really all that new or different; it's the way my mother has always taught preschool to 3 and 4 year olds; it's the way we all learn when we have forgotten our obligations, and are just following our hearts. But somehow we forget that we learn this way. In the rigid social and political systems we've created for ourselves, we forget that we love to learn. We think that learning is about acquiring a set of skills or knowledge; we think it's about being able to conform to accepted norms and becoming acceptable, contributing members of society. Then we spend our lives escaping from our jobs at nightclubs, movies, bars, on mountaintops, in books, dreams, and in front of televisions. We forget that, once, before we went to school, we were learning every day; everything was interesting, and we didn't even want to go to sleep at night, because there was so much to experience, still.

Unschooling certainly has its pitfalls. We live on one income, we are hopelessly ignorant about the trends and fads that other families are spending their energy on, the kids are sometimes ostracized from their school friends' lives when they cease to fit in, we're not used to crowds (though this is partly a rural thing, too), my kids' knowledge-base is definitely different than that of their peers, sometimes we're lonely... and most of all, we spend every day questioning ourselves and our choices -- wondering if we're doing the right thing; wondering if our kids will resent us for this choice; wondering if the government will pull the rug out from under us and we'll fall hard on our beloved forest floor, flailing on our backs like flipped beetles. But this, like most things, turns out to be about trust. We are trusting that this path will lead somewhere beautiful, and so far it has.

Tomorrow we are going to bake cinnamon buns and have a play with some other homelearning kids.

Thank you, universe, for that.


takes joy out of giving
gift out of life
life out of joy
gives in to loss .losing
loses dancing from moving
movement from song
song out of living
gives value to 'wrong' .winning
steals meaning from passion
passion from love
love from the losers
gives in to loss
my poetry sucks

so I can't share it .afraid
it's not good enough
for wanting
wanting is not enough .losing
is all it's about
when there's no need for gain .pain
when there's no need for doubt .love
in sharing our souls
I lose the value of loss
wanting to feel you
sharing my failures
my laugh
my story
my pain
my losing
wanting to hear you

there is strength in giving without pride
there is giving in loving without judgment
there is love in witnessing frailty
there is pride in knowing we love

This week I had to check off my kids' abilities from the list of grade-appropriate learning outcomes, just to ensure they keep getting their homelearners' money - but this list of where they measure up doesn't say anything about who they are, their strengths or passions or abilities. Just places them somewhere on somebody's list. I just want them to sing because they want to, to learn what interests them, and to do what they feel is right instead of what they need to do to win. Winning doesn't feel very good when you have to turn and see the losers, behind you.

This isn't about not valuing strengths, but celebrating them individually, as opposed to competing to be better than others. If we were all just working towards our own individual goals -- because we wanted to, and not because we were expected to, or because we wanted to be 'the best' -- then we would get there, I think, with a true feeling of accomplishment and gratitude for where we are. And community. 

All people will always have aptitudes or difficulties in various things and I think it's important to celebrate our uniquenesses. But competition of any sort creates losers, where an atmosphere of sharing and support creates desire and confidence.

Usually, when the topic of non-competitiveness or non-coercive learning, or even my choice not to test and grade my children comes up, I am warned that my children will need to learn to function in the "real world". My answer to this is that we already live in the real world, because the real world is the one we are creating every day. As more and more of us turn away from competition and judgment, towards support and celebration, I am more and more pleased to be a part of the real world.