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Peter's Podium: The Value of Unstructured Time

Written by Peter Bergson, OC Co-founder. Originally Published in the Open Connections Magazine, Spring 2020.


I have always been curious when people use the term unstructured in reference to how young people spend their time, or when referencing different approaches to education in families, schools and various other activities. The same is true when I hear the term free play. I ask myself, what other kind of play is there? If it is not free, how can it truly be called play? As Peter Gray defines the term (and I agree with him), central to the meaning of play is that the player is free to stop, and leave, when it is no longer enjoyable. Thus, pure play is truly self-directed.


As for what is usually meant by unstructured time when referring to what a youth is up to, I gather that it means that the situation is not controlled or even planned by others, primarily adults. Also, by implication, it is most likely not as worthwhile, or productive, or instructive, according to adult criteria and values.


This is all a huge mistake.


To the contrary, youth-directed time is often the most valuable part of his or her day, and although some or much of the activity may not be planned ahead of time, it is most definitely structured. Furthermore, the decision-making process, even when it is spontaneous, represents the kind of structuring of one’s thinking that helps one mature in such areas as seeing the connection between actions and outcomes, experiments and data collection, behaviors and consequences. When young people are given the freedom to decide what to do, they are provided with the opportunity to learn and to grow with their attention focused exclusively on their actions. They are not distracted by such considerations as am I doing what you want me to be doing, am I following your instructions properly, must I continue to do something because it is what is expected of me in this moment as opposed to what I wish I could be doing, and, perhaps most disconcerting of all, must I put my own interests aside in order to follow your agenda?


Why am I making such a fuss about all this? Here is my concern:


Back in our Bryn Mawr OC days (1978-2001), we rented out our Open Program space to a group of mothers and preschoolers who had been heavily influenced by an organization that stressed the importance of early and frequent stimulation of young people’s intellectual and physical development, starting as early as six months of age. The mothers had been sold (literally) a full curriculum of materials and instructions as to how to use them with their youths. Each was designed to “help develop” some aspect of their mind or body (or both), or some area of content such as mathematical, artistic, spatial, rhythmic or other aspect of their being. As a result, there seemed to be impressive levels of achievement at very early ages relative to their non-instructed counterparts. Of course, generous amounts of praise reinforced the whole scenario.


To their credit, the leaders of this group recognized the need to counterbalance all of the “structured” time between parent and youth (which took up much of their days, lest there be too many lost moments would cause the youngsters to fail to achieve their “full potential”) with some unstructured play time. Hence, the field trip to Open Connections. What ensued, however, reinforced my bias in favor of a preponderance of self-directed time for young people of all ages.


Over the three-hour visit, I heard a near continuous stream of requests from each young person to his or her mother, all asking for information on how to use a particular material (“What’s this do, mommy?” “How does this work?”), or repeating a well-practiced statement such as “Give me a lesson about this, please”. I couldn’t believe my ears. Here were a dozen two-to-four year olds in a room with more than fifty different items to explore, manipulate, test out, take apart or put together, and they seemed paralyzed to do so on their own. They had learned that everything had a purpose, a lesson to teach, and that it was up to an adult to introduce them to the possibilities.


Of course, the mothers were all too happy to comply. They would, mostly, carefully explain both the name and the supposed purpose of each item in which their youth expressed interest. Or they themselves would invite their son or daughter over to “come, Sandy, look at this pan balance. See, you put one weight on this side and then you find the matching weight to add to the other side so that everything balances…See? Pretty cool, huh?” Sometimes the youth would replicate the parent’s movements; at other times, they would walk away in a manner that suggested no interest at all, in which case the mother might try again or simply abandon the material herself and follow her dear one to the next thing that caught her eye.


Occasionally, however—rarely, I’m afraid—one mother or another would respond to “What’s this for?” with an open-ended question such as, “What would you imagine?” Or better still (in my opinion), “How about if you experiment with it for awhile and see what you come up with,” but as often as not, the youth would refuse and ask again, or simply wander off in search of something that would perhaps be more familiar or warrant a straight answer.


Of course, I have no way of know what was actually going through the mind of any of the young visitors during any of their interactions. Happily, after the first hour and a half or so, some of the moms had begun to tire of explaining what’s what, and of not being able to answer many of the questions because they weren’t familiar with many of the items or their potential uses. At that point, the youngsters had to start to rely on their own thinking processes. They had to structure their thoughts spontaneously, in response to the void that resulted from the absence of instruction from Mom. The result for many—not all, I might add— thus developed into the kind of experience that the group leaders had had in mind when they requested the visit. Genuine, open-ended, exploratory play began to emerge as the source of the structured time transferred from parent to youth. Their genuine inquisitiveness began to emerge, especially with the materials which were unfamiliar to their parents. In the absence of known answers, true exploration and experimentation reared its beautiful head. New thinking, as opposed to routine emulation, became the order of the day. Free play turned into real learning. I loved it.


What I have described here may seem a bit extreme in terms of adult-structured encounters, and in terms of the amount of such engagement, I suppose it was. Still, even more modest degrees of parental initiation can, I believe, start to undermine the natural power of self-direction and self-structured thinking. The oft-quoted position taken by John Holt in his book, How Children Fail, seems particularly relevant here if one places a high value on being able to think for oneself:  “The true test of intelligence is not how much you know how to do but how you behave when you don’t know what to do.”


For those parents who frequently hear, “I’m bored. There’s nothing to do. Can I watch a video?”, one possible response is to increase the amount of youth-structured time (formerly known as unstructured time), when they are required to fall back on their own resources due to the absence of external direction. Of course, it helps if they have a fair amount of physical resources at their disposal, idea generators and raw materials that are needed to put imagination to good use. That is definitely a way that parents can satisfy their need to feel useful. After that, however, the most useful thing to do is to get out of the way and let the structure develop on its own.