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Free Time and Play

Free Time and Play

The theme for June is Children and Play, and today, we are delighted to feature “Free Time and Play”, an article by Jeanne Darling, a much-appreciated supporter of the BCT. We modified this piece to include links to other websites and to meet the blog’s requirements. 

Free Time And Play

Free Time and Play

Text by Jeanne Darling

An editorial by Nancy Gibbs in Time Magazine (Nov. 22, 2010) aimed at “busy adults” about free time got me thinking –

Reading “Eureka! One thing technology can’t give us is time for serendipitous discovery. Why we need to reinvent free time“, I realised that we rarely thought about “free time” as a luxury during my childhood in the 1950s.

No one needed to create such an event. We had plenty of it as children because of our circumstances.

My town at the time did not have a preschool or a Kindergarten. Consequently, my peers and I only started school when we were six. Then, we enjoyed a daily two-hour lunch break at home and ended our school days at three o’clock.

We usually played outside with the other children afterwards. Most of us were free and unsupervised. The outdoors were our playground and equipment.

Mom would ring a loud bell that everyone in the neighbourhood could hear when it was dinner time.

At home, we would clear our dishes after eating, complete our homework and then readied ourselves for bed.
Television was a special treat reserved only for Sunday evenings when we watched “The Mickey Mouse Club“. Saturday morning cartoons slowly seeped in but barely lasted an hour as my parents tended to whisk us out for fresh air.
This leisurely style of living ceased to be available to my children in the 1980s.

They attended daycare while I worked a fifty per cent schedule. Like most other kids, they first went into local preschools and then attended Kindergarten. Later, when they started Grade One, they spent the entire day in school, lunching at the cafeteria before participating in their after-school activities.

My children were never out of my sight unless they were in an organised program. They played in our backyard, where I could watch from the kitchen window. Or at a local park where I accompanied them.

These two different scenarios for raising children have their benefits and drawbacks.

However, the element that strikes me as the strangest is the different concepts of “free time”.

In one scenario, we took it for granted, much like the air we breathed. However, in the second, we had to create it consciously.


In the last twenty years of teaching preschool children, I have observed a continuation of the deterioration of children’s “free time”.

Plenty of programmes specialising in academics, music, dance, or sports now exist. These organised activities often appeal to parents who want to take advantage of the much-touted “windows of opportunity” in the early years.

Furthermore, the explosion of media-based toys and activities captivating to most young children has also eroded opportunities for “down-time”.

I can’t turn back the clock, nor would I want to.

Nonetheless, I am concerned about the growing number of parents complaining to me about how burdensome it is to keep their children busily occupied. Likewise, how much time they spend transporting their children from one activity to another.

Worse still is the growing number of parents who now see preschool as a waste of time and prefer to have their children start formal school immediately. Some confess that they want their children to learn to read as soon as possible so that they can put aside the chore of bedtime reading.

What is the rush to push children out of the riches of a leisurely and unencumbered childhood? And what is sacrificed in the process?

We might want to consider the words of The International Play Association of Canada (IPA Canada). In its declaration “Promoting the Child’s Right to Play”, it sets out the following arguments:

“The quintessential nature of play is that it is initiated and controlled by children and this element, and the resulting social competence, has been critically linked to the development of resiliency in children and youth . . . Play is a vehicle for the development of creativity and flexibility, invaluable qualities in human evolution. Through play, children explore cause and effect and gradually build a knowledge base that cannot be taught through structured learning activities”.


“Play is not just about providing safe playgrounds for children. It is fundamentally about protecting their freedom to explore and discover the physical and social world around them on their terms. Child advocates must be vigilant in protecting this right, for the twenty-first century offers severe threats to this seemingly natural and straightforward aspect of human development.”

Back to the Time editorial –

There, Nancy Gibbs confessed her envy for the “20 per cent rule” imposed on Google engineers (to encourage employees to spend about 20 per cent of their time experimenting with their ideas).

“The one day a week they are told to allocate to a kind of intellectual R&D, working on projects that aren’t part of their normal job description”.

Following this, she posits that “if we were ordered by our bosses to spend even one hour a week brainstorming, blue-skying, free-associating . . . the rest of the week would become more creative as well. “

We should reconsider children’s “free time” if we recommend adults indulge in playful, creative thinking to boost productivity.

And perhaps the pendulum will swing back in favour of children’s rights to “free time”.

In the meantime, I can only encourage parents to give their children the gift of unorganised downtime.

Let the children experience the boredom of a leisurely afternoon, day or even week. Allow them time to create, daydream and explore. And resist the urge to organise it for them or allow computerised programs.

They will not be wasting their time – Nancy Gibbs and the engineers at Google would agree.



Editor’s note:

The BCT Blog is incredibly grateful to Jeanne Darling for her generosity and ongoing support. You can find her other articles here (Confessions of a Grandmother).

Jeanne Darling is a retired educator, having taught children for over twenty-five years in Basel. She continues working with children, offering “Story Times” workshops at several schools and libraries. She also wrote the children’s illustrated book “Basel’s Hidden Stories”.









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