Free Play VS Purpose

Image by Arvind Balaraman from

We are a purpose driven society. This is a good thing. It has led to improved medicine, communications, better health, more comfort to more people, and, I think, improved well being. Being purpose driven is what leads us to give to others even when there really is nothing in it for us, it is what leads to volunteerism and it is what leads to excellence. But purpose driven can come at a cost. We can be so driven by purpose that we forget to:

  • be spontaneous, to take advantage of interruptions that lift us up but don’t necessarily forward a set purpose
  • reflect on Life, the Universe and Everything. Just for the fun of reflecting.
  • take time to enjoy our own company and the company of others who are not directly involved with our purpose.
  • take time to be purposeless

Scheduled time, for kids, teaches time management and prioritization. These are important skills and, from my observations in the classroom, ones that many kids are lacking. With that said, even more of the kids I teach, even the ones that are developing the beginings of time management, lack the ability to do nothing constructively.

It may seem like an oxymoron to speak of doing nothing constructively but I contend it is essential to a balanced life. Kids spend a lot of time doing nothing such as watching TV, playing video games that feature gratuitous violence where the only objective is to kill as many things as possible to reach the next level are two examples that come to mind. You may be able to supply others. They lack the ability to disconnect. They lack the ability to be comfortable with themselves. And because all of these activities are scripted, they lack the ability to problem solve and think independently.

This is where constructively doing nothing comes in. For example, when a small child builds up a tower of blocks just to knock it down and build it up again, this is constructively doing nothing. The child learns how to position blocks to get the best construction for her purpose, she develops problem solving skill and yet, she isn’t building anything permanent or meaningful. When a child runs around in the yard randomly examining anything he sees, he is doing nothing. Constructively. He is enjoying the feeling of his own company and the company of what ever he might find but he has no goal, no purpose. Even so, both children get a lot from the experiences. These are both examples of unstructured play. The more time kids have to free play, where they have to figure out how to entertain themselves and solve a problem, like how to build a fort from a few sticks and a couple of blankets, the better they will be at solving other problems without help from others.

Building foundations of unstructured play, like climbing a tree or building a tree fort, intermingled with structured, disciplined activities like music lessons or football camp, creates a balance of skill. Give kids both. Give them

  • Music instruction, if they are interested (or instruction about things that interest them)
  • and time fiddle on their own, making up their own tunes and rhythms
  • football camp
  • and time to throw the ball back and forth for the fun of it
  • nature instruction
  • and time to just be in awe because things are so cool

And while they are at it, why don’t you join them if they’ll have you. If not, find your own way to “free play”.

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