Play is a faculty that every child brings into the world. It is extremely important to encourage it and let it unfold freely.
Children play naturally. Nature also plays. Water plays, clouds play, the wind plays with the leaves... When we look at all this playing, it refreshes us, appeases and heals us.
Animals, too, play when they are young. In his book Die Seele des Bären (‘The soul of the bear’), Charlie Russell describes the emotion he felt when watching three bear cubs he had raised in Kamchatka in Siberia. What fascinated him was that their games lasted continuously from morning to night.
This is also what our children would do if they could live undisturbed like these bear cubs, and if they had a suitable environment. We would have no need to encourage them, to show them how to play, to buy them toys or give them ideas. Spontaneous free play flows inexhaustibly unto itself.
On the train, I met two Norwegian businessmen who were talking about their holidays. One said: "Every year we go to the same cottage on the fjäll (Scandinavian plateau). You know, at home, my kids are always glued to their screens; we cannot tear them away. On the fjäll there is no network. First, they are bored; they are craving. But gradually, they begin to go out and play. And then, they dive into play and do not stop – becoming "normal" again!”
Free play cannot die. It is not lost in children whose parents or teachers say they no longer know how to play and have neither ideas, patience nor a wish to do so. It is possible – and this happens more and more frequently – that play can no longer be seen; that it remains enclosed, walled-up inside the child. A lot of patience, love and trust is then needed before it dares to come out.
There are many factors that threaten free play, such as the many toys continuously brought on to the market. They eclipse the free play of children. Yet free play is something vital for a child.
If we want to revive play, we will find our most valuable allies in the living world. Nature comes to our aid with unexpected generosity. Not all children have a cottage in the pristine expanses of a Norwegian fjäll, but they can spend some of their vacation time on a mountain pasture or farm. Both children and adults need respite, a time during which nothing is programmed or organised. This calm is favourable to play; children and parents alike can then breathe a little and bring the benefits of this break into their daily lives. Indeed, without such protected islands of rest, play cannot unfold properly, not even at home.
What is this ‘homecoming’ of free play all about? Children need to have access to something other than ‘ready-made’ things – water, sand, earth, clay, trees, sticks, bushes, grasslands, animals.
Things that are organised or occupational have nothing to do with free play. Children respond favourably to such opportunities only if nothing else is offered to them. But inner enthusiasm is missing, that is to say, the intimate bond, concentration, perseverance, and red cheeks, that attend a game one has invented oneself. This enthusiasm can be expected when play is free, initiated by the child. It is not easy to create the appropriate atmosphere of play: it is a veritable art.
At what age can we start to encourage free play? Very young children can play alone if we provide them with a suitable caring environment. But the child must be ‘satisfied’ in terms of the soul, for that is what gives access to free play. This means children must be surrounded by the attention and presence of adults. This is not easy; our minds are often elsewhere. A smartphone makes almost every child a loser. Our attention is constantly distracted by such things.
Develop a taste for play
Children who are cared for with love feel safe and satisfied. They play happily and with ‘almost nothing’: baking whips, salad drainers, shoehorns. Any kind of ‘play lesson’ interrupts the child and disturbs its own activity. The Pickler pedagogy that encourages this approach and has researched it well can be a significant help and relief for parents. The simplest things are also the most fundamental: quiet, respect, empathy. The result is the unfolding of healthy play and movement. Children are their own best helpers.
If we can also avoid any doctrinal attitude in dealing with children, letting them see the world in a completely autonomous way, we will have taken another important step in allowing play to unfold. Though hardly noticeable, the flow of play is lost the moment it is organised by someone who knows ‘how to do it’.
Set play free
Children find incredible pleasure in learning. Pleasure in learning, pleasure in playing are closely related. Free play is remote from any notion of competition. Competition reaches into every corner of our society. Many believe that children already bring this attitude with them into the world. Absolutely not! As Antoine de Saint-Exupéry rightly said: "Children should be very soft on big people."
If we can give children an environment in which free play is possible, if we have confidence in the huge potential inherent in free play, we can again rejoice in children's play. Like water in a torrent, it refreshes and invigorates not only our children but also ourselves.
It is a big relief for parents and teachers when they discover they do not need to ‘do’ or buy games, but that their ‘only’ duty is to make play as free as possible.
Maria Luisa Nüesch. Kindergarten teacher and eurythmist
Maria Luisa Nüesch, Begleitungskunst in Eltern-Kind-Gruppen, Verein Spielraum-Lebensraum, 2015 (‘The art of accompanying parent-child groups.’)
Maria-Luisa Nüesch, Spiel aus der Tiefe. Von der Fähigkeit der Kinder, sich zu spielen gesund, K2, 2004. (‘Play emerges from the depths. The ability of children to play healthily.’)
Monika Aly, Mein Baby entdeckt sich und die Welt. Kindliche achtsam begleiten Entwicklung nach Emmi Pickler, Kösel, 2011 (‘My baby discovers himself and the world. Loving accompaniment of child development according to Emmi Pickler.’)