Why Encourage Self-Directed Play?

Perhaps you’ve heard about self-directed play, also known as open-ended play.  Maybe you haven’t.  It may seem like a recent trend, but the truth is the concept is nothing new.  Plus, the benefits are extensive.

Once you understand the reasons for encouraging our children to engage in self-directed play, and you have a basic understanding of how to try it at home, it’s simple!

Bonus: self-directed play embraces many Montessori ideals.

What, exactly, is self-directed play?

If your child is using simple toys in creative ways with no adult-directed outcome, there’s a good chance they’re already engaging in self-directed play.

Many of the toys available today are intended for a specific purpose.  Let’s consider, for example, a doll.  Sure, a child can embark on some imaginative play with it, but a doll will always be a doll.  The same goes for a small toy train or a plastic dinosaur.  This is not to say there is anything wrong with these toys, but the ways in which children can use them are limited by their nature.

Now let’s consider a cardboard tube.  The possibilities are endless!  The tube could be a telescope one minute and a megaphone the next.  It could be a log, a bridge, or something to guide a ball through.  Materials we offer children for self-directed play are simple.  Think balls, cardboard tubes, sticks, scarves, playdough...the list goes on. 

When children embark on self-directed play, it’s important for adults to remember that the children are the ones calling the shots (within safe boundaries, of course!).  It is our natural tendency to have pre-determined ideas of what the outcome of a certain activity should be.  We often, instinctually, feel the need to jump in and teach children the “right way” to do things.  Give yourself permission to step back.  When we observe the the way in which children discover their own outcomes, it can be magical to see the process from a new viewpoint.  

How can self-directed play benefit children?

  • It builds self confidence.  By exploring on their own, children realize there is so much they can do for themselves.  They make their own games with their own rules, and they feel successful.  
  • It encourages independence.  Isn’t our ultimate goal for children that they might be able to get along just fine without us?  Self-directed play lets them experience independence from a young age, all while in a safe, prepared environment.
  • It stimulates imagination.  Children can’t help but be creative during self-directed play.  By giving them these opportunities, we are allowing them to flex their creative muscles; they will see possibilities no one else has imagined, and they will develop their own story lines as they play.
  • It teaches problem-solving.  Coming up with one’s own rules naturally leads to problem solving.  Children will have to figure out how to make something work the way they want it to.  
  • It allows children to learn at their own pace.  With self-directed play, there is no timeline and there are no academic benchmarks to meet.  Kids have the opportunity to build on their own knowledge, day after day, in ways that make sense to them.
  • It cultivates internal motivation.  Without adults defining the success of an activity, children will be compelled to find the innate joy in their play.  They will naturally tend to challenge themselves to try new, innovating ideas, and they will find their own personal delight in doing so.

Getting started at home

If you’re feeling ready to give self-directed play a try in your home, consider these tips to get you started:

Materials/Toys - Remember, these should be simple.  As an added benefit, simple toys tend to be much easier to obtain and far less expensive (and often free!).  If possible, toys should be made of natural materials.  Think wood, fabric, and items found in nature; avoid plastic if possible.  As mentioned above, collect toys that can be used for any number of possibilities.  Things like balls, scarves, blocks, boxes, sticks, or clay are great.  Some people like to collect trays of loose parts to leave out for children.  Loose parts trays might include pebbles, seashells, buttons, bits of string, pieces of tree bark...whatever looks (and feels) interesting!


Prepare the Environment - Make sure children have a safe, open space in which to play.  Depending on your home and the weather, this could be your living room, backyard, or whatever space works for your family.  It’s important to make sure children have flexibility in their movement though, so make sure they can sit, stand, jump, roll, and explore!

Sit Back and Enjoy! Another great benefit to self-directed play is that because children can engaged on their own, you are free to spend time checking off your own to-do list.  But feel free to sit nearby or even alongside your child if you wish.  Just remember to let them take the lead and explore their world and imagination.



A line of students filed out of the big metal door. You could hardly see our faces under our brightly colored raincoats. Boots squeaked and thudded. Rain pants rustled. Inside the door, the line was straight and organized, but as soon as we stepped outside, we were wild — children of the Earth.

Recess had begun.

A newly formed river of mud and rain in the woods. A slippery fallen tree acts as a bridge, or a castle, or a throne. Leaf crowns. Tiny rocks, twigs, and the sand pile make a tiny fortress. A moat is carved out of the dark brown mulch much to the chagrin of our teachers, and the rain quickly fills it in. Wet bark peeled off a dead tree, rocks, leaves, twigs, acorns, pine cones, a feather from home, and we built a fairy house. Capture the flag goes on in all weather. The wetness is an added challenge, an extra bit of fun. We liked to show off our grit.

We slipped and slid across the soaked playground. Our heels rubbed raw in our boots, but we didn’t care. Fingernails quickly filled with dirt and sand and wet bits of bark, but we didn’t care. Mud splashed in our faces and we wiped it away with muddier hands, but we didn’t care. Our fingers and noses were numb with the wet chill, but we didn’t care. Despite the “waterproof” rain gear we were wearing, we were soaked through, but we didn’t care.

We did care though, when the teachers began to call us inside. When the little bark castles had to be left for tomorrow — who knew if they would keep from collapsing without us watching over them? When the imaginary kingdom by the new river in the woods had to be abandoned for another day. When the capture the flag game had to end before anyone had scored. When the leaf crowns had to be taken off. Then we cared.

Up until two years ago, I attended a Montessori school. This meant I spent a lot of time outside. In elementary, we had recess every day, whether it was snowing or raining or sleeting. We had lessons out in the woods and took trips to the beaches and mountains. Unless the temperature was way below freezing or it was thundering and lightning, we were out in it.

Curiosity, love, and concern for the natural world has been a part of who I am from a very young age. Now that I am older, I read the biology textbooks, watch the powerpoints on ecology, take my dog for a walk after school every day, and I understand a little more of what is happening out there in the world. I get it. And I love getting it. Learning about life and nature gives me a sense of fulfillment that no other subject in school does. I compost and recycle at home. I am President of the Green Group at my high school, and I am happy to say that the school now recycles! When I’m out with my dog I'll pick up trash from the side of the road. I hike mountains with my dad, even in the snow. I love being outside.

Recess, but also every lesson and trip we took in the outdoors while I was in Montessori, was a very meaningful experience for me. It made me the person I am today. It instilled in me a curiosity and a passion that otherwise might not exist and for which I am very grateful. I’m seventeen years old now, but I will never stop playing outside. I will never stop loving the earth and I will never stop fighting for it. I will never stop asking questions and never stop wondering how the earth works. I will never stop — because of recess. Because of log kingdoms, leaf crowns, little sand fortresses, and muddy games of capture the flag.

-Alexandra Campbell, HMS '14


Montessori Happy Moments

As a Montessori educator for over 25 years, I have had countless happy moments with children. I have delighted in their play, joy and work. But the moments that have brought me the greatest pleasure are those that I have not been a participant in but an observer.

What do all these observable moments have in common? The inner knowing of the child to find himself in his own accomplishments. I have seen it in on the faces of 14 year olds, exhausted and hungry from hiking the highest mountain in Maine and THEN a 3 mile hike to camp. I have seen it on a 4 year-old's face as he asks for his fifteenth word to write with his movable alphabet. It is subtle yet powerful.

The key is to wait for it. The child’s timing is not our own. Anyone who has had to wait for their 3 year old to put on a sock or exit a car independently knows that! We adults are constantly chattering and moving and doing for our children. Stopping ourselves, slowing it down, taking the opportunity to observe and really notice is required for this experience. Try it. Sit on your hands or bite your tongue if needed. When we take that step away from the constant comments and running commentary we tend towards with our children, they will unfold before our eyes. And it’s beautiful. 

If we can accomplish this, amazing things begin to happen. Our children take on and enjoy responsibility for themselves and their part in the world no matter what their age.

By accomplishing a task with out the cheerleading and praise of the adult, the child experiences an inner knowing and understanding of what they are really capable of. This joy is evidenced, if you wait for it, in a look, a smile, a subtle gesture, a sigh of satisfaction, excited chatter to you or another. Their experience takes on a whole different meaning when it has come from within the child and not from us. 

Synonyms of happiness include pleasure, joy, exhilaration, bliss, contentedness, delight, enjoyment, satisfaction. I have seen all these on the faces of children reveling in their own accomplishments. It never fails to be one of my happiest moments.


Want to know more about letting go and letting your child? Check out Vicki Hoefle’s fantastic book Duck Tape Parenting 

Cautious? or Overprotected?

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A headline in the Nashua Telegraph last fall proclaimed: “School Yard Game of Tag Banned.” This caught my attention! What was the harm in this playground game? The principal stated that “the game of tag seems innocent enough, however the force with which students tag varies greatly and this game, in particular, has been banned in many schools in the U.S. due primarily to concerns about injuries.”  This wasn’t the only headline like this in recent news. A school in Long Island banned balls from the playground this past fall, and you can read similar examples from other towns across America. Have these decisions gone too far? Some parents thought so.

Children's play has long been understood to have a key role in the development of their future life skills. Real play, when children are in charge, instinctively making hundreds of decisions as they assess and determine the levels of risk they want to take—physically, emotionally and sociallyallow mastery, day by day, in an increasing repertoire of skills which add to their bank of experience.

What had changed so much since my own childhood of climbing to the top of the monkey bars and playing king of the hill? Modern fears and anxiety, in a world much safer than ever before, has led to a risk-adverse culture that can express itself in what some perceive as overbearing safety policies. What’s forgotten are the benefits of learning about and discovering risk. Fears of litigation increase tendencies to err on the side of caution, often creating standards that lack real play value.

Through play, children acquire confidence, but also an awareness of limits and boundaries. They learn, in short, how to be safe. For our children, we must remove the bubble wrap of overprotectiveness and grant them the opportunity to play in ways that challenge themselves.

So, to my own children, who have much loved the opportunity to climb trees, cross creeks, and climb as high as they are comfortable, I pledge to continue giving you the opportunity to challenge yourself, for it is only through your own experiences and choices that you will truly learn the skills for this game of life.

We want to hear from you! What do you think about playground risk?

Read the Atlantic Monthly article here: The Overprotected Kid