Practical Application
Comments 4

The Art of Play by Rebekah Brown

I wish I had a photograph to show you of the outside play area where my kindergarten class plays each day, but I have confidence your imagination will substitute nicely.  Our school is located in the busy theater district in midtown St. Louis.  The building is situated upon an enormous parking lot.  A small corner section, roughly about half the size of a football field, has been allocated for us.  There is a large historic mansion adjacent to our play area, also on the parking lot – the last remaining house not bought out by developers.  (Undaunted by the owner’s refusal to sell, city planners simply put in the parking lot around the house.)  By the grace of God, that owner is a retired landscape architect.  He put in trees, shrubs, flowers, ivy, and built a rock wall on the two long sides of the lot, facing the streets.  Also, by the grace of God, our landscape architect welcomes children climbing his trees, walking on his ivy, sitting on his rocks, and doesn’t mind the storing of an enormous hoard of honey locust seedpods in his yard “so no one captures them.”
I hope you haven’t pictured any swingsets or playground apparatus, because there aren’t any.  There is no soccer field, no basketball hoop, and outside of the two strips of greenery mentioned, the area is completely paved, as most parking lots are.
Recently I stood on the playground with a prospective parent and her comment was, “How do the children play out here?  What do they do?”  As I began to tell her, she interrupted, not out of rudeness, but more out of incredulity.  “Yes, but there’s nothing out here for them to do!”  As I told her of the elaborate make-believe games, complex tag games with different rules for different players, and just plain old digging in the dirt, she eyed me skeptically.  “You must work hard to plan all this for them.”  It was inconceivable to her that a group of five and six year olds could conceive of their own games, organize themselves, and implement the plan without an adult directing, supervising, and managing the whole affair.  Her inquiry as to where we stored all the apparatus for our games was not unexpected.  I thought of “Hospital” which the children played for a half hour earlier in that day.  The white stripes on the parking lot denoted the beds, the surgeons plied their trade with sticks and when a patient unfortunately refused to stop bleeding the nurse would scream hysterically, “Get some leaves!  Get some leaves!” of which there were plenty.  When the situation became too disturbing for any of them, or a patient got a little too antsy waiting for his turn to get out of bed, the magician would come by to heal immediately with her stick.  It was great.
I have been thinking quite a bit about play and Charlotte Mason’s instruction on masterly inactivity since then.  In School Education, she defines masterly inactivity on the part of the parent as that which indicates the power to act, the desire to act, and the insight and self-restraint which forbids action.  And on the part of the child, to be let alone to do their own duty or seek their own pleasure.  The constraining power should be present, but passive, so that the child may not feel himself hemmed in without choice.  She wisely goes on to describe that a child must recognize the adult’s authority when asked to do something, while fully knowing that the adult is in authority even when he is not directly under it.  This is accomplished by prior training of habit in a child, by setting clear guidelines and expectations, by intervening when a child has done wrong so that he knows he cannot choose to disobey without consequence, and then having confidence in the child and his ability to choose right.  A parent must see without watching, know without telling, be on the alert always, yet never obviously, fussily so.
In thinking about my conversation with the visitor, I came across an article reviewing the book Children at Play: An American History by historian Howard Chudacoff (a history professor at Brown University).  He outlines the timeline marking the shifts in the way children spend their playtime in America.  For the first time in 1955, on the Mickey Mouse Club, a toy company marketed a toy gun (the Thunderburp).  Up until then, toy companies only advertised once a year – at Christmas time.  According to Chudacoff, almost overnight, children’s play became focused as never before on the toy itself, rather than the activity of playing.  He goes further, saying that the elaborate narratives children used to concoct while engaging in freewheeling play lost their imaginative scope when children became more dependent upon props and specific scripts.  When children improvise play they are doing much more than just exercising their imaginations.  They are regulating themselves which is a key component of a broader set of skills called executive function.  (In fact, studies show that self-regulation predicts effective development in virtually every domain and is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ.)  Make-believe play is a powerful tool for building self-regulation.  Children talk to themselves, setting up the boundaries or rules of their play and functioning within those boundaries.  When the boundaries don’t function well, they devise ways of changing or expanding them without breaking the rules of their play.  They talk to themselves (or with others) about what they are going to do and how they are going to do it.  Unfortunately, the more structured a child’s play, the less this private speech occurs.
On another occasion I was watching over a group of children for about ½ an hour or so.  Most of them were between the ages of five and eight.  This particular group came in the room and asked what there was to do.  I pointed out a number of possibilities, but most were stumped. When I pointed one of them to the art table, he inquired about what he was supposed to draw.  When I told him he could draw whatever he wished, he said he didn’t know what to draw.  I then made some suggestions and began to draw at the table with him.  Sadly, he said he didn’t know how to draw.  He wanted to do something else. One of the other children was using the math manipulatives to mark out a boundary for her toy dinosaurs but he didn’t “know how to use those toys.”  When I said he could use them for something else, he simply asked the obvious, “what do you do with them?”  For this young boy, objects were to be used for their intended purpose and nothing else.  Without consistent direction and help he had difficulty knowing how he could spend his time playing, even when given the opportunity.  Interestingly, he was one of the children who was resistant to cleaning up.  He struggled with self –regulation.
In the late 1940s psychological researches conducted a series of tests on child self-regulation.  In one of the tests, they asked children ages three, five, and seven to stand perfectly still without moving.  The three year olds couldn’t do this exercise at all. The five year olds could do it for about three minutes.  The seven year olds could basically stand as long as the researchers asked.  In 2001, some researches repeated the experiment.  Today’s five year olds were behaving at the level of the three year olds 60 years ago, and today’s seven year olds were barely approaching the level of a five year old in the first experiment.
For many children today, free time consists largely of lessons (dance, music, karate, etc.), team sports, or television and computer time.   I would be one of the last to say that one should not take instrument lessons, and in high school I participated in just about every sport there was.  These activities have value, but for young children especially, there needs to be time allowed for free and imaginative play.  Play where they are imagining, solving problems, changing course in midstream when a new idea strikes them.  Improvised play, as Chudacoff would say.  Mason says, we try to dominate them too much, even when we fail to govern and we are unable to perceive that wise and purposeful letting alone is the best part of education.
Mason wisely points out that masterly inactivity is by no means time to let the child do whatever he chooses with no regard for safety or obligation.  In this day and age a child’s safety is a real issue, and parents are concerned that their children get the best enrichment opportunities possible.  In my teaching experience, more and more children come to me with increasing anxiety or decreasing excitement when given more free rein to make choices about play, about responding to what they are learning. (“I don’t know what to do.”  “Is this good enough?” etc.)
As teachers of children today, with schedules more and more packed, and more and more parents anxious over such things as test scores, it is true that we are feeling the pressure to squeeze the most out of our minutes.  What are the unique challenges we face with regard to encouraging masterly inactivity in our students?  For those of us  teaching in schools where we cannot dictate the schedule as much as we’d like, how can we try to purposefully create an atmosphere in which masterly inactivity could flourish?   (At times, I feel I almost have to teach some children how to rediscover how to play, how to regain the confidence in themselves.  I agree with Megan on this point, shared in one of her comments – that learning along with the children, expressing the delight and wonder along with them can help reignite the spark.)
I read of a group of preschools on the West Coast specifically designed to help nurture this very aspect of childhood: free time for make-believe play.  Amazingly, before a child can embark on his play, he must sit down with the teacher and dictate a one page plan for the play.  What will he do?  What materials will he need?  Will anyone else join him?  What are his goals for the play?  How will he know if he reached his goals?  Talk about missing the point.
Why is it we feel if we adults cannot plan it, test it, measure it, quantify it, it has no value?  But that is another topic for another day.

This entry was posted in: Practical Application


Carroll Smith has spoken on various topics related to Charlotte Mason. Currently he teaches at Gardner-Webb University and enjoys working with children, teachers, college students, and Charlotte Mason Institute. He was a teacher and a principal for 21 years before coming to Gardner-Webb University where he has been for six years. Having grown up in eastern North Carolina, he attended East Carolina University for his undergraduate degree and his master's in school administration. He completed his terminal degree and wrote his dissertation on Charlotte Mason at Virginia Tech. Carroll enjoys reading, gardening, and discussing ideas with friends. He and his wife, Andra, and their two young adult college-age children, Corban and Anna, enjoy living, working and playing in North Carolina.


  1. A month ago, my husband and I threw a party for people at his office. The day was a beautiful sunny spring-like day, so we held a backyard BBQ and we welcomed their children. I had so much fun chatting with the moms and watching their kids. Three preschool boys had the greatest fun by simply playing and using their imaginations. They took the woodpile and moved it to the other side of the sidewalk. Then they build things with it and lined the pieces of wood up to make their own sidewalk. They played on the steps and pretended to be a gate, letting people in and out of the back porch. They picked little flowers and gave one to each mother in the group. They picked pecans and then put them in empty soda bottles to make their own instruments. The whole thing smiled and made me think about Charlotte’s comments on play!

  2. thebuckatmindspring says

    It takes slowing down and not zooming around to live
    purposefully, even for play. I remember
    Susan Macaulay speaking at a L’Abri conference in 1997
    on The Right Time and Place for Play. She also recommended some books where the children play ~~ The Would-Be Goods
    and the Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit. Don’t forget
    The Railway Children. Also Swallows and Amazons by
    Arthur Ransome provides a summer of play and sailing!
    If interested , look on Sound Word for the tape. Will have to find my old notes for more.


  3. rhollis says

    One of my favorite memories teaching first grade was last year while we were studying the founding of our country. We were reading about the events leading up to the Revolutionary War, and my students had an assignment to learn about the heroic men and women of that time. Over the next several weeks I joyfully watched them running around the field pretending to be the people they had studied. All 11 children were fully engaged! I loved watching their imaginative play as well as seeing the relationships that they had begun with these important historical figures.

  4. recnepsrefinnej says

    The thing about imaginative play is that it requires TIME! This is in short supply as children’s schedules are more and more crowded with adult-directed activities. I remember doing my student teaching and trying to sneak in a few extra minutes of recess for my second graders. A few day later a memo went around the school saying that “Our test scores are not high enough to be wasting time outside. Recess should be kept to ten minutes.” This ten minutes included the time it took to get outside and get lined back up to come in! Poor kids.

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