Learning Through Unstructured Play, part 1

Let your kids 'try this at home.  Photo credit:  Wes B. on Flickr.com.'

Jamie’s a smart kid. He reads a lot, does well in school, and impresses adults with his vocabulary and insightful questions. These traits set him apart, for sure, but Jamie has something else—harder to describe—that sets him further apart. It’s this: he reminds me a little of Leonardo Da Vinci.

Not that I know personally what Da Vinci was like as a kid, but I imagine he had a boundless energy to discover and create. That’s what Jamie has; he’s a whirlwind of ideas and inspirations. And the best part is that his parents are letting him follow these inspirations and discover for himself how things work.
My wife and I visited Jamie’s parents one Sunday afternoon. Jamie had been a student of mine, and his parents were graciously making us dinner a few weeks after the school year had ended. From the outside, their house was a typical, nice upper-middle-class home, and from the front hall it seemed like it was about as neat and homogenously decorated as most nice homes are these days.

But when we entered the kitchen we got a glimpse of something different: the apparatus of various science experiments covered what would normally have been sparsely adorned counters and niches. And the kitchen table, which had clearly been the laboratory workspace for these experiments, was only partway to being transformed back into an eating place.

Then we turned toward the living room, which looked more like a museum diorama of a medieval keep. With the exception of a small area reserved for sitting on the floor and working out engineering dilemmas, it was covered in an elaborate system of tunnels, towers, drawbridges, and dungeons—all made out of boxes and packing tape.

Jamie’s parents, somewhat abashed by this unusual architectural monstrosity (or masterpiece), apologized for the mess, explaining that ever since they had moved into the house they had let Jamie use the moving boxes and any new packages that arrived in the mail to create this fort. They tried to justify this practice by saying that it saved them money on furniture, that it kept Jamie occupied during their long work hours, etc. I told them they didn’t need to justify it to me because I thought it was about the coolest thing I had seen since I was a kid making forts in my room.

Dinner was fun, Jamie talked nonstop, and I realized that caterpillars cocooning on the kitchen counter, crinkled carrots being monitored for mold in a jar on the table, and a cardboard box castle in the family room are the tangible evidence of parents with the right instincts to raise a curious, creative, problem-solving, passionate kid. Oh, and a happy one, too.

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One Response to Learning Through Unstructured Play, part 1

  1. perlani says:


    Thanks for sharing this great story. I wish more parents would adopt this attitude and allow kids to make use of the house the way that kids want to. I see so many homes that are tidy and boring. We need to realize that there are alternative and better versions of home furnishings that what Pottery Barn sells to us. I admire all the parents who let their kids imaginations free. If you visit our house, you’ll see that our kids have pretty much taken over – which is fine with me since all of our friends also have kids and it’s wonderful when we have kids come over to play at our house. We have chalk all over the sidewalk, playmats and boxes randomly thrown around for the kids to build play forts, playdough, little toys hung on doors, stickers on the walls. I’m really proud to have a house that is so alive and vibrant. I can’t wait for our sons to get to Jamie’s age and making more elaborate structures!