Children Who Don’t Go to School: What Does It Look like to Play All Day?
It is a beautiful sight to watch children at play. But, how sad that it is still so devalued.
I often have people comment to me that they could never homeschool their children “because they would just want to play all day”, and it kind of amuses me. They seem to be under the impression that we’re doing something different than that. We’re not.
Our children play all day. So do their friends.
I don’t have strange children who want to sit down and methodically work their way through a curriculum each day. *yawn*. I have normal children. And what do children want to do? PLAY.
The only difference is, I see the value in that.
I wish you would too.
What does it look like to play all day?
Our children are unschooled, meaning they are completely in charge of their education and are never forced to do any school-type ‘work’. They follow their interests, and they do it passionately. They spend their days playing.
Two days a week we meet up with friends, usually outdoors in nature, and the kids run around all day long just playing. In a time where school recesses are becoming shorter and shorter, I couldn’t be more happy that my children are free to play this way.
When I watch them, it occurs to me that so many people would see this as a waste of time. They might think that they can’t possibly learn all they need to when school usually takes up five days a week.
They see our children just playing outside. No agenda, no attempt to ‘educate’ them, no parent directed activities, no learning resources. Even during the school holidays, most children don’t experience this amount of freedom.
What do I see? I see children engaging with the real world, learning all the time, practicing the skills that will be truly useful in their life rather than memorizing facts that will soon be forgotten. It is not so important what you know, but that you have the skills to learn whatever you need to learn in your life, and a passion to do so. That is the type of education that free play provides.
Watch a child at play and you will see how much they are really learning…
Skills like problem solving, that can be applied to any area of life, are much more valuable than any fact you want a child to memorize. I am more interested in my children being confident, intrinsically motivated learners, who can learn anything they need, than stuffing their heads full of useless information.
Problem solving in action. There are multiple opportunities for this every day, this is one I happened to capture. Here the girls wanted to get across to the other side of the muddy creek bed, but weren’t sure how to do it without getting muddy. They found some dry sand and worked together to make a path across.
Children are born scientists. They are constantly exploring their environment, asking questions, testing hypothesis, gathering data. All in a much more authentic way than following an experiment written in a text book to get a known outcome. Through play, children make sense of the world. When we take them out of the world and try to coercively ‘educate’ them how we think is best, we rip these opportunities for real, lasting, meaningful learning from their hands. It is so much more powerful to make discoveries for oneself.
Miss 7 wants to climb a tree but the first branch is too high up. She tries leaning a big stick up against it as a bridge, but finds that it’s too unstable. She can’t balance on the stick without falling and it’s bending in the middle and might break. She moves the stick closer so there isn’t so far to climb and it’s more sturdy, but still can’t balance. She eventually comes up with the idea of putting two more sticks either side for her hands as she climbs, and makes it up the tree.
She is ‘just’ playing, but exploring so many concepts.
Every time children come together in play, they practice their social skills. They must negotiate what they will play, who plays with who, how to balance the needs of everyone, communicate likes and dislikes, and much more. Social skills are not learned nearly as effectively by sitting next to someone in a classroom, as they are deep in endless hours of free play.
Children gain so much independence from playing outside. They try new things, test their abilities, and feel that sense of accomplishment that is truly their own when allowed the freedom to direct their own learning and play.
Moving your body freely means lots of running, jumping, climbing, hopping, rolling, crawling, and anything else you can think of. Kids were made to move! That’s how they learn. Children who play outside are healthier and have better motor skills and coordination. They take risks, and end up much safer for it.
Creativity and Imagination
When I watch our group of children play outside, I am blown away by their creativity! The outdoors is the ultimate open-ended toy. It can be anything you want it to be. They are constantly creating and imagining. The future needs creative people with new ideas and innovations.
Caring about the planet
How can you learn to care about our world if you have little experience with it? Children learn to love nature, by being a part of it. They feel how good it feels to be outside and they want to preserve those spaces. They learn about plants and wildlife and how we are all connected and play a part. Nature has so very much to teach us, but sadly most children are prevented from hearing the message.
“When we first take children from the world and put them in an institution, they cry. It used to be on the first day of kindergarten, but now it’s at an ever earlier age, sometimes when they are only a few weeks old. “Don’t worry,” the nice teacher says sweetly, “As soon as you’re gone she’ll be fine. It won’t take more than a few days. She’ll adjust.” And she does. She adjusts to an indoor world of cinderblock and plastic, of fluorescent light and half-closed blinds (never mind that studies show that children don’t grow as well in fluorescent light as they do in sunlight; did we really need to be told that?). Some children grieve longer than others, gazing through the slats of the blinds at the bright world outside; some resist longer than others, tuning out the nice teacher, thwarting her when they can, refusing to sit still when she tells them to (this resistance, we are told, is a “disorder.”) But gradually, over the many years of confinement, they adjust. The cinderblock world becomes their world. They don’t know the names of the trees outside the classroom window. They don’t know the names of the birds in the trees. They don’t know if the moon is waxing or waning, if that berry is edible or poisonous, if that song is for mating or warning.
It is in this context that today’s utopian crusader proposes to teach “eco-literacy.” – Carol Black
I could go on and on. The benefits of play are immense and it’s impossible to cover them all. But most importantly, I trust my children. I know they are capable learners. I don’t need to know everything they are learning. Evaluating it doesn’t make it more worthwhile. However, I know sometimes the conditioning we received from school makes it hard to trust. I hope these insights into my own children’s experience are helpful.
“Free play is the means by which children learn to make friends, overcome their fears, solve their own problems, and generally take control of their own lives. It is also the primary means by which children practice and acquire the physical and intellectual skills that are essential for success in the culture in which they are growing. Nothing that we do, no amount of toys we buy or “quality time” or special training we give our children, can compensate for the freedom we take away. The things that children learn through their own initiatives, in free play, cannot be taught in other ways.” -Peter Gray
Yes, children can play all day. No, it’s not a waste of time.
Play is where real learning lies.
Hello. So I read your posts all the time and I am in agreement with your lifestyle choices for your children. Where I am having an issue is for the later years -the high school years! See I homeschool two boys who would be grades 6 and 9 and guess what all they want to do is play all day too. I do value play but I don’t value playing on phones or video games and I’m not too fond of play fighting either
( can’t even believe they still do that).
Anyhow I go back and forth between bookwork and a more unstructured kind of day because though I want them to choose their path it seems their paths keep taking them back to the electronics.
I appreciate that your girls are enjoying and learning outdoors and while my boys might too my constant question to myself is that enough?
I’m not a home educating parent (yet) but I do tutor two home-educated pre-teens and my take from observing them is that they key is motivation. Not your motivation, or external motivation like bribery or rules, but the child’s recognition that whatever it is that they want to do in the future requires a certain sequence of steps. Also, open discussion about how minds and bodies are affected by our choices – genuine discussion, which applies just as much to the adults as to the children.
You say you don’t value playing on phones or video games, or play fighting. Have you discussed with your boys what they value about those activities? Not in an attempt to bring them round to your way of thinking, or necessarily to bring you around to theirs, but just a conversation about it that goes beyond “Because it’s fun” or “Because I want to”. They might surprise you by showing you more “value” than you’d recognised, or they might admit that they also see that form of play as less valuable than others, but are struggling to extract themselves from the addictive properties of that kind of stimulation.
My professional experience has been that children are generally very rational and logical beings, who make good choices when they feel that the choice is genuine, meaningful and purposeful. Sometimes a shift from having rules to having freedom leads to a period of testing the limits, so an experiment with no screen-time limits or an un-fooding approach (where children choose what and how much to eat) might seem like a total failure and be abandoned before it’s really had chance to flourish.
I used to nanny for two boys who are a little younger than yours, and the elder in particular was struggling with controlling his behaviour in relation to video games. I’d brought along The Sims for them to try, and we agreed a particular length of time for each to take a turn before it was time to make dinner. The older boy went first, and when his time was up he was very rude and snappy, and tried to resist letting his brother have a go. Then he wanted to play again at the time we’d agreed to have dinner. When he’d calmed down later, I talked to him about how he’d changed to a less nice brother and friend, and that I was concerned that if I brought the game again, he would be nasty again. The options I outlined were that I could bring it again and he could work on controlling his temper and sticking to our agreements, or I could not bring it again. He chose the former and it was actually very successful, but if it hadn’t been, then we’d have worked on how he could make his choice a success, or whether actually he wasn’t capable of resisting the urge to hoard the game time and perhaps it would be better for me not to bring it at all.
It’s really hard work, raising children! But at the end of the day they are going to be adults, and letting them learn the skills necessary for being productive and happy adults is the main goal. My suggestion would be to focus on character and emotional literacy; if and when they identify the need for specific knowledge, skills or qualifications, they’ll then be equipped to motivate themselves to acquire those things. Strewing lots of interesting opportunities and resources helps too, but nothing kills interest like forcing participation/interaction with things.
I hope this doesn’t sound too preachy. As I said, a lot of it is informed by a decade of working with children and families, but it’s also informed by my own experience as a child who went to school and did very well academically without much effort, and is now an adult having to do a lot of the character and emotional literacy work that I missed out on as a child (for a number of reasons which aren’t relevant here). Incidentally I’m also learning a lot of things I technically “learned” at school but didn’t retain, and now find myself needing – I did the work because it was required by my teachers and I was a rule-abiding child, but I didn’t actually retain any of it because it wasn’t relevant to my life at the time.
Thank you all so much for your comments. Means a lot. I will continue to push forward but be open.
This was very interesting. Whilst I’m dying to motivate the kids and try things out, I’m still unsure what to do. I guess part of going to schools effect is spoon fed brain. I need a guide to tell me step by step how to motivate my ever so unmotivated 11yr old.
From what ive gathered for later years from other parents, by that time they are more into music, (playing an instrument), in sports or practicing for the ACTs for college. By that time they have learned everything they need for college.
I agree 💯 % I am a homeschooling mom who put her poor kid through preschool and kindergarten before I realized it was not natural. I (together with 3 homeschooling friends) started a Nature Club and Outdoor Programming bc of all of these reasons. Love reading about like minded people who believe children are learning all the time. Check out what we do at http://www.outdoorlifelearners.com.
As a parent who grew up going to public school , I graduated back in 1983… School is so much different from then… I have a 14 year old and a 12 year old.. I trust in them. Us taking them out of school when she was in the 5th grade and he in the 3rd was the best thing for our family… For all the years I am old I know I have been programmed by society to obey the rules.. But with my 13 & 12 year old Since pre-school I always felt it was unnatural- I would drop them off at school and get home and want to go right back and pick them up …. I think that trusting in our children is the best thing we can do – Some times I don’t like what my husband chooses to do, Its the same with the children- let them get confident in their own choices…Learning is a 24 /7 thing… As parents we have to change our mindset…
Oh Sara! So, so beautiful and powerful. 💚
I am very interested in this. We homeschool and will often take off for a few days at a time to go camping at nearby national forests just to break away from our homeschool curriculum routine. My question about this topic is how do you reconcile this style of homeschooling with state laws that require an equivalent curriculum to that as a public school?
What ages is this about? 12 and under? Ir through compulsory schooling age?
My grandson is 12 and I would love for him to be taught this way .. how do I go about this please