One of my favorite activities these days is to observe what our learners do during their free time. I’ve come to believe that there is a lot we can learn about their growth and development as we observe their unstructured actions. In fact, there is a growing body of research about the benefits of free play in child development and the detriments that have ensued as such play has been sacrificed upon the altar of productivity.
One interesting example that comes to mind happened while I was conducting a tour with a prospective family. Our Sparks studio broke from core skills for a “brain break” as I was looking in the window, and within moments, a game of “leap over the slinky” spontaneously emerged. Two children were designated as slinky holders, each holding an end and wiggling it on the floor like an oversized, spastic snake. The other children then began leaping over it while giggling and shrieking. Our guide had stepped into the hallway to introduce herself to our guests at the time, so the average age in the room was probably a shade over six.
While it may be easy to dismiss this as a simple game, I was struck by the skills that are necessary for such a creative, collaborative game to simply emerge without any adult intervention. Beyond the obvious creativity in developing a novel use for a slinky (which, by the way, accelerates in a really fun and unpredictable way when used in this manner), I was most struck by the developmental aspect of it all. In most schools, the goal is simply for children to behave. What I was witnessing here, however, was an entirely different order of cognitive and social skill development. This was self- organization and self-direction. Not only are these skills substantially more difficult to develop (and often completely undeveloped in many settings), but they are also the basis for executive functioning and the foundation of all kinds of important life skills.
Since this event, I’ve found myself intentionally keeping an eye out for self-organization during their free time. What I’ve found is that it is so prevalent, it’s difficult to find instances where it is not present. I see it in the forts that the learners collaboratively make under the picnic tables outside, in the structures they build out of sticks and the imaginative showdowns that ensue as “invaders” approach, and in the balancing games they play on a fallen tree trunk and its branches. The creative and collaborative energy is nothing short of remarkable.
To be fair, these games are not always utopian, and breakdowns can occur just as spontaneously as the game arises. But that’s all part of the learning process, as it requires them to manage their emotions and find a solution that is agreeable to everyone.
It’s funny, though…the things you become proud of. There’s so much about this community that is amazing. And yet, a humble game of leap-over-the-slinky and a structure of sticks are near the top of the list.
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