As I watched L playing on the rug this week, I was reminded of the importance of free play – truly free play. She was on her back playing with one of the small, metal bowls we have in the room, alternating between shaking it up and down and drumming it on the floor. One of her shakes was particularly vigorous, and the bowl flew from her hand and landed near her feet. She let out a frustrated moan, and my initial reaction was that I should help L retrieve the bowl and place it back in her hand so she could continue shaking and drumming. But as my hand impulsively reached for the bowl, I drew back, deciding instead that this was an opportunity to let L problem-solve or move on – it was her choice. I watched as she flipped to her stomach, and then back. Eventually she moved to her side, and found that she could reach the bowl with her feet. This delighted L, and she kicked the bowl back and forth a bit, before letting it dangle from her toes as she rolled back over. She played with it a bit more, before moving on to a nearby basket.
Had I simply reached out and grabbed the bowl, this opportunity for L to reach it on her own and to discover a new way to play with it would have been lost. I was humbled in that moment, realizing that sometimes well-intentioned, helpful actions have the potential to impede discovery and play that is truly free. Just as I attempt to arrange toys and materials in a way that has no particular goal in mind (i.e. no certain way that children are meant to play), so too should I refrain from assuming that the children have particular goals when they are already engaging with objects. If L had been very frustrated and looked to me for assistance, it might have been appropriate to intervene. But even when she let out that (seemingly) frustrated moan, she was still completely focused on the bowl. She was reasoning, experimenting, exploring, and solving. I’m happy that I gave her the space to do so, and I appreciated the reminder that for play to be truly free, I must refrain from “helping” until it is asked of me.