Unstructured Time

Imagine going to a party… you don’t really know anybody, maybe one or two people there. You walk in, and what do you do?
Do you go right to the people you know? Do you walk around a little bit to check it out? Do you go get some food or a drink first? Do you find somewhere to sit to observe?

Now imagine at that party – you’re forced to sit at a table right when you get in. You have to eat the food that’s there (doesn’t matter if you’re hungry or not), you have to do the activity they’re doing (maybe they’re playing cards, or a game, maybe you don’t know how to play it – but nobody asked). What if you’re forced to introduce yourself? or give a speech on the spot? What if you’re forced to stand out when you’d rather just blend in?

As an adult, you get to decide how you enter the party, and what you’re comfortable with. For some reason, we never give that same consideration to children.

Children need time. Their day is a constant rush of going to one place to the next, regardless of where they want to be or what they want to do, especially in the mornings on school days. I’m not a parent, but I can imagine it can be somewhat like this boy trying to put his kittens in a box.
This is why giving children *unstructured time at school, and the choice for them to decide how to use that time is very important. I find that at the beginning of the year, the children have no idea what to do when they have their own time; some of them wander around, some of them observe other children, some of them rest, some of them read, some write, some are completely lost and unsure, and this is because they might not have ever been given a large chunk of time to decide what to do independently.

I also find that large unstructured blocks of time are the most productive for the children, the most calm, and it’s when I observe the largest amount of different kinds of learning taking place. It’s also when I learn the most about the children, as individuals. I learn about their interests, their families, their friends, and I can easily find their zone of proximal development by watching them play, and by participating in the play.

It usually takes about 20 minutes into our free time that the children find a focus. It is really loud in the first 20 minutes, when everyone’s trying to figure themselves out. I can relate to this (and I’m sure you can to..) – when there is a meeting… or when I get home from work… I usually spend about 20 minutes chit chatting or browsing aimlessly on the internet until I’m ready to be productive and focus, especially in the morning – I like to wake up and take my time, I don’t like the feeling of being rushed.

*Unstructured time does not mean there are no rules and it’s complete freedom and chaos. It’s not like a zoo where all the cages open up and the animals run wild (because people do think that’s what it is).
It’s a process, and it takes time to develop, just like any routine in your classroom.
The beginning of the school year it’s pretty much like a zoo, but as you practice with your children what it means to be respectful and responsible in our play, their play changes.

It’s also important to note that I do not close off any areas of our classroom during unstructured play time, anything we have can be used as long as respect and responsibility are at the core – respecting materials, ourselves, others (aka no throwing, breaking, hitting others or ruining others’ work) and being responsible for the materials, ourselves, and others (aka cleaning up after yourself, making sure what you’re doing is helping you to learn, making sure what you’re doing is keeping you and others safe).

Things I think you should read…
All Work and No Play
Why Children Need to Play in School
What Happened to Kindergarten?
The Joyful, Illiterate, Kindergarteners of Finland



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