In our Preschool, we’ve been using “Free Play” freely (if you’ll pardon the pun) to describe what our students do in the classrooms first thing in the morning. It implies that the play is child-directed, free of adult interference. That it’s loosey-goosey, aimless or perhaps a little anarchic. But the more I think about it, is this really what we want to convey when we talk about the children’s play?
Yes, play should be child-directed, but that doesn’t happen without teachers creating an environment that encourages exploration, independence and curiosity. For example, teachers in the PreK-4 class added gourds (uncut) and leaves to the sensory table in anticipation of autumn and Sukkot. The teachers didn’t then ignore the provocation or alternately tell the children what to do with the gourds—they watched and saw where the children went and followed their lead. And they stepped in to help only by asking questions or talking to a child who was maybe considering throwing one. Later in the morning, they satisfied the children’s curiosity by cutting them open (no easy task the teachers and students discovered!) during Small Group Work.
Don’t get me wrong—it’s not the word “play” I have an issue with. Play is important, vital, necessary to children’s learning. It’s the word “free.” (I heard Lilian Katz once asked, “Free play? Please tell me what’s “expensive play.”)
So we could replace the word “free” with any of these: choice, independent, spontaneous, open, exploratory, guided. Or my preference: intentional.
“Intentional Play” gets the best of both worlds: it implies planning on the teachers’ part, thought on the children’s part and the message that children learn through play.
So starting today, let’s start a revolution: let’s call it Intentional Play. You can even use Microsoft Word’s “find and replace” function to find the phrase “free play” and replace it with “intentional play” wherever it’s found. It may not seem revolutionary, but it’s a shift in thinking which will lead to a shift in action.
If you want to add an intention to play to your own life—perhaps as a goal for the Jewish new year—all the better.
Additional Reading: What Should a 4-Year Old Know?