The Perils of Unstructured Play, part 3: Weirdness

Photo credit: Flickr user Astra Goblin

When you’re a kid, and someone asks you what you like to do, they usually expect an answer like, “video games” or “soccer.” But what if your answer doesn’t fit into the usual neat, “normal” package? If the answer that jumps into your mind is “I like to read about fantasy worlds and then make up my own with my friends, and sometimes make up new languages, counting systems, and calendars,” you might scare your questioner—or they’ll just think you’re weird.

When I was young and someone asked me what I liked to do, I might reply with something expected like “wiffle ball” or “matchbox cars,” but sometimes I’d say, “throwing things at things,” “watching events unfold,” or “rating words with multiple criteria.” Not to mention, “flipping a coin a thousand times to see what happens” (see earlier article). Kids thought I was weird, adults thought I was weird, even my parents and teachers thought I was weird (but in a good way).
I taught a fourth grader who had a similar range of favorite activities. If you asked him what he liked to do, he might say, “play piano” or “draw,” but more likely he would say something like, “make up card games about birds” or “study ornitholiology” (a word he made up to describe the study of people who study birds). He was also a co-creator of worlds (including “Munchkin”) and languages (“Squeak”), but his true passions were birds, drawing, and music (and sometimes all three together). I thought he was awesome, and since we were both lucky enough to be at a private school that fosters difference, other kids and adults accepted him—but I worry a little about the day he goes back into the “real world” of public school. There are precious few high schoolers taking AP Ornitholiology.

So one of the risks of allowing kids to follow their interests to the narrowest niches without reigning them in or redirecting them is that they may be labeled as weird and marginalized by the predominant anti-weird contingent that our culture produces. I’m glad I was “weird,” and I know now that weird ones make the most interesting marks on the world, but there were moments in adolescence and early adulthood when I would have given anything to be “normal.”

Was I a weird kid solely because I was allowed to play in unstructured ways? Of course not, but it sure encouraged my long walks on the weird side. As we endeavor to allow our children’s imaginations and discoveries to range widely, we should also be aware of how others might see them when they try to explain what they enjoy doing. Some people expect only the expected, and we should try to prepare this generation of “weird” kids to meet those people. Then maybe they won’t feel so weird.

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