Deep Play

“Unrestricted and unsupervised play in one of the most valuable educational opportunities that we can offer our children.”
- Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced and Barefoot

Decades of research have proven what we already know from our own experiences: children thrive when they are given ample opportunity for independent, unrestricted play. But in contemporary American culture, we are nevertheless driven to try and manage or direct children’s play in order to produce particular outcomes within particular time frames. Unfortunately, when play is directed by adults (either subtly or overtly), it becomes something else entirely: a means to an end (i.e. getting kids to explore physics or geometry through block-building). Adult-directed play can sometimes be enjoyable for children, but it is not the kind of play that is essential to their development. Children need what is known as deep play. And deep play requires an abundance of both time and freedom.

I recently finished reading Angela J. Hanscom’s (founder of TimberNook) new book, Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children. She describes deep play as “…a type of play that involves purpose and is not merely exploratory in nature. By the time children have engaged in deep play, they have chosen who they are going to play with, have chosen what they are going to play, have taken on their roles, and have developed their play arrangements.” Hanscom notes that this is often a long, slow process and that “…children need time, patience and the opportunity to step back from adults in order for [deep play] to occur.”
Deep play takes place all the time at Macomber Center, a rare gift in today’s world. Packs of children roam around inventing games and imaginary worlds, building structures, and setting rules. Most often, I only catch glimpses of this kind of play. I see kids making masks, stringing bows for shooting arrows, racing to capture each other, or rounding up baby dolls. But every once in a while, I have the great privilege of seeing it up close.

Back in the fall, under cover of orange and gold leaves, a group of girls set out toward the tire swings with James Style, who had been named chief of their tribe. My oldest daughter was visiting the Center that day, and the two of us were invited to join the group. I sensed this was no ordinary hike to the tire swings; it was a serious, purposeful expedition in which everyone had a role to play and a job to do. When we arrived at their camp, I stood in wonder at what these girls had created. They had constructed shelters and weapons, jewelry, and food. There were leaders who made decisions and gave orders; there were guards who kept watch and protected the group. Everyone had an invented name and each girl’s role was an essential part of the whole. There was an elaborate story line (that I had some trouble following), complete with battles, open-fire cooking, near-deaths and rescues. To these girls, this was all commonplace, just another day playing in the woods. But to me, it was a powerful reminder of children’s masterful use of play to make sense of the world around them. It was nothing short of magical.

More recently, I’ve seen kids playing house and assigning roles of Mother and Baby to each other, creating games that involve running (and hiding) around the building, and having sword fights or escaping imaginary villains. 
This deep play is a significant part of what kids do here at Macomber, and it is extraordinary to witness. There are few places left, it seems, where children are free to roam the woods with friends and decide for themselves how to spend their time, even after school hours or during the summer. Free play is but a fantasy for many (if not most) children these days. We have somehow been convinced that free play is a luxury that we simply cannot afford if we want our kids to “stay ahead.” But, as Hanscom writes, “Giving your children time to engage in free play is like giving them a very special gift - a gift that keeps on giving, preparing children for adulthood by cultivating and nurturing essential life skills.” During free play, children explore the world on their own terms, navigate a wide range of personal and physical challenges, learn where their strengths and interests lie, and build relationships with both the people and the culture around them. Free play is not a luxury; it is essential. So send them out, and let them discover their own magic.