More Time and Space for Free Play in Early Childhood Care

Symposium VI/18 EECERA Annual Conference Strasbourg 2009


Philipp Reubke, Member of the Council and Board of Trustees, International Association for Steiner-Waldorf Early Childhood Education (IASWECE)

This paper was presented to the European Early Childhood Education Research Association  in Strasbourg , France, on August 29, 2009 by Philipp Reubke, kindergarten teacher at the Rudolf Steiner kindergarten in Colmar.


Each child is individual and unique, having needs, gifts, difficulties and desires that are his own. What can be done so that each child is able to grow and learn according to his personal rhythm? What can be done so that each one feels respected, perceived as he is, and welcomed in his uniqueness and at the same time stimulated to evolve?


 A simple method - though not always easy to implement - both effective and risky, which brings enthusiasm to children yet is at times disturbing for adults, is free play.


Play itself is a current topic, even in French pre-school programs, which are known in Europe for their «academic» tendency, compared to the Scandinavian countries where the accent is put on play:


As a main consideration, the (French) programs put the accent on the central position to be held by play, by action, by the search for autonomy, and by sensory experiences. (Program, p.20)


Board games, video games, educational games, entertainment- it's not always clear what we mean when we talk about play. Here is how I see the characteristics of free play as I practice it in a Steiner/Waldorf kindergarten with three- to six-year-old children.


From the beginning, free play demands


  • freedom. Just as one cannot plan out an artistic creation or an improvisation ahead of time, free play cannot be planned out in detail. I can make certain material available, but cannot say what the children will do with it. Openness, confidence and empathy are indispensable for this type of play.


  • time.  It might take a little longer to get started, and there might be moments of hesitation, boredom, aggression or disturbance emerging from past events appearing early on in the free space. Some children might experience this  as «emptiness». It takes time for the free play atmosphere to unfold. In order for children to take full advantage of free play, there has to be at least an hour or better yet, an hour and a half, available for them to fully enter into the process.


  • space. Ideally, there is enough room for full body mouvements (jumping, climbing, balancing, throwing and catching, for example) and for generally quieter symbolic games. The teacher needs to be aware of this and to allow for a protected and divided space. The children need to be able to rearrange the area during the play session: they should be free to create their own space with tables, chairs, planks, folding screens and fabric to make ample, large-scale structures such as cabins, vehicles etc. In this way, the game becomes an activity in which the whole body participates, not only the tips of the fingers moving little pieces on a table.


  • a  variety of objects. An extensive range of materials needs to be available:  heavy objects that are bigger than life size, and small objects such as figurines, tea sets or sea shells, costumes and to be used to create accessories, modeling clay, string, yarn, wool, pieces of fabric. Toys like this are more suggestive of reality, rather than mere representative copies. The object does not impose itself by fascinating the child, rather, it invites his imagination to start moving.


In free play, everything depends on the child's activity. Not only does he create his

play space himself, he chooses the type of play to become involved in, either play based in movement, or more symbolic games in a protected corner of the kindergarten. Each object brings the freedom with it that is necessary for the child to reflect his mood and his culture onto the object itself (the rag doll can laugh or cry according to the mood of its 'mum'; she can be a little African girl or a superwoman). Each child invests according to his ability, mood and physical condition, each finding his own mode of expression. Great diversity is able to come about, since time and space are open and movable.


A play session like the one described above encourages connections among children from different social backgrounds, and allows the emergence of fundamental competencies described in the pre-school programs (of France), which include:


  • Language:  The possibility for spontaneous, intense small group verbal interaction is ever present. A child who doesn't speak the local language very well learns quickly through concrete examples and soon expresses himself at his own level. Such a child learns to speak quickly through real life situations or by imitating life through play rather than through artificial speaking exercises.


  • Social skills:   Free play offers an intense field of experimentation for a full range of social qualities such as sharing, collaboration, tact, synergistic living or discomfort in social situations, perception and the respect of cultural diversity.


  • Emotional development. While playing, a child experiences his emotions with intensity and might need to bring them to evolve.  A wide variety of emotions, such as courage, spontaneity, joy, disappointment, and boredom can find expression in play. Free play allows children to narrow the gap between intelligence and emotional maturity when necessary. Because it is a time free of rules or adult direction, it offers the child a space full of the possibility to «consider nothingness» (Annie Eschapasse), or «a space full of potential», «an intermediary ground» (Winnicott).  «This can be considered 'sacred space' for the individual as far as one creates in this space the experience of creativity of life».(Winnicott, 143).


A child can create the space that satisfies his emotional needs. I have seen an exceptionally bright child create a totally dark space, a child lacking affection create a personal 'nest' and a clumsy child build an obstacle just high enough so that he could dare to jump over it.


  • Cognitive development: By playing with natural objects or undefined toys, a child takes into consideration their elemental qualities while using his imagination freely ; for example, little sticks can become spaghetti, a large stick a guitar etc. For Christian Rittelmeyer,


this versatile interpretation of the real environment represents one of modern society's most fundamental competencies...(that is) the capacity of creating several possible interpretations of  a real phenomenon. (Rittelmeyer, 136f).


Before having to become familiar with the completely arbitrary symbols such as those used in writing, the child uses a form of free symbolism based on the inspiring form of an object, with the inspiration coming from that which is evoked from within himself.


Other research suggests that a quantitative decrease of sensory stimulus reinforces the capacity to evoke from within. «The disappearance of normal auditive input can promote the appearance of the auditive cortex hypersensitivity that may increase the strength even more of musical imagination.» (Oliver Sacks, 52). Can we not deduce that free play, without sensational toys, stimulates the ability to evoke from within, a capacity which is fundamental for future learning?[1]


Personal development:  Following rules or instructions takes a back seat to the child's personal initiative during free play. The child's development progresses in an atmosphere in which the surroundings invite him to move beyond being a simple spectator, to actively becoming a director or an actor. As Françoise Dolto said, «The enemy of our culture is passivity» (Dolto, 56). Free play promotes the  taking of initiative, which is indispensable for cultural and economic life.


Many educational researchers have noted the importance of free play in the personal development of children. For example: according to Jean Piaget  the emotional and intellectual needs of the child are not satisfied if he must constantly adapt to his surroundings. «It is therefore indispensable to a child's emotional and intellectual balance that he have an area of activity available in which the motive not be the adaptation to the real but the assimilation of the real to the 'self', without constraints or sanctions: this is play.» (Piaget,44).


Rudolf Steiner follows this reasoning when he states that it is indispensable that the young child act from his own impulses. If a child is forced to do some work, it brings in «a goal that is not part of his own world», and his true nature is not respected. However, if the child does this same sort of work during playtime by imitating an adult, the child can experience growth. According to Steiner, «the child can develop his activity according to his own nature, his own 'life of a man'. This form of play operates from within to without, the work from without to within.» (Steiner, 95)


 Daniel Marcelli grants that the child «can learn without play» but specifies that «such

 learning resembles submission and indoctrination.» (Marcelli, 28)  In his book, Play and Education, Giles Brougères objects to the idea that free play can have any educative value. After detailed analysis of the pedagogical thought expressing the idea of self-development of the child through play (Schiller, Fröbel, Winnicott) he writes, «play, whose spontaneity has been put forward by romanticism, is socially built and re-built in the frame of domestication and control of childish activity». (Brougère, 34).


While I understand Brougère's point of view,  I find that his objections come from an incomplete understanding of the nature of free play.   Controlling and planning a child's activity makes play impossible: it loses  many of its previously mentioned qualities. «That it cannot be planned out, is characteristic of this type of educational process». (Rittelmeyer, 137). However, I find that the presence of an adult and well-established, healthy limits are indispensable for such play.


An illustration of the above, used to create a framework for free play, includes the following :


  • time: after an hour and a half, free play degenerates according to my observation.
  • space: the need to have little nooks as well as a large space.
  • the connection of the adult to the child: this does not imply direct interference or involvement in a given activity, but an inner presence for the child: observing, being present as soon as required or when there is suffering.


«When (a child) feels alone, he cannot play. However, a balance must be respected: presence does not mean interference». (Julien Cohen-Solal, 42)


«It is a non-interventionist attitude, since the children's initiatives are being looked for, but it is not a retreating attitude. This can be defined as a communicative presence based on long-term observation, (…) a warm, positive regard...» (Sylvie Rayna, 45)


When intervening in a conflict situation, the adult attempts to adopt the language of the game if possible ('The control tower asks all pilots to control the power of their engines').


  • adult activity: An inactive, observing adult obstructs free play. Concrete activity, simple enough for an adult to pursue all the while being available to the children, is an excellent non-verbal way for the adult to provide a framework for the play. (Almost any domestic activity can be adapted: tidying up, doing dishes, making cakes, sewing, embroidering,  rasping and filing, and why not sawing and hammering? Outdoors, hoeing, digging, planting, etc.)


  • the cultural framework: In order for a child to play freely without giving way to excitation or destruction, he needs  to witness and take part in a healthy quality of  life. Any sort of concrete, constructive physical work is stimulating, as are stories, poetry and songs. By the choices, quality and style of presentation of  pedagogical enrichment brought to the children, the educator positively influences future play. (Just as too much passively consumed super-hero content prevents this from taking place, making it impossible.)


I believe that free play, well accompanied by an adult, can be practiced in all child care structures, even in state-run early childhood centers.  Of course, there are risks, because by definition, we do not control everything. School inspectors say, «More and more, class organization is turned towards the blackboard, just like the desks. Playtime, which is so important for children, tends to diminish. The disappearance of playtime is therefore most preoccupying». (Program, 65). Steiner-Waldorf kindergartens have been taking this idea seriously for 90 years.


Let's not be too serious all the time. Turn the desks around from time to time, away from the blackboards so that children can build cabins and club houses. Let's make education not only the adaptation to what already exists but also the transformation of what is, according to what is living each one's soul. Another person's soul, which is considered different and strange, might be found to be a treasure chest that holds the key for a better tomorrow.




BROUGERE, Gilles. Jeu et éducation.  Paris: L'Harmattan, 1995.

COHEN-SOLAL, Julien. «Le jeu initiatique». in Imaginaires de jeux  ed. par Liliane Messika, Paris (autrement),2000.

DOLTO-TOLITSCH, Catherine. «Provoquer à jouer». in Imaginaires de jeux , ed. Par Liliane Messika, Paris (autrement), 2000.

ESCHAPASSE, Annick . «L’art et l’enfant». in  Catalogue du Centre de formation,

Enfance et Musique, 2002.

MARCELLI, Daniel. «L’éloge de la surprise». in Le Furet  n°34, mai 2001, p.28.


PIAGET, Jean. La psychologie de l’enfant.  Paris: PUF, 1966.

Programme National de Pilotage, Enseigner à aujourd'hui à l'école maternelle. CRDP de l'académie de Versailles, 2002.

RAYNA, Sylvie. «Comment les jeunes enfants organisent-ils leur jeux ensemble»

in: Dialogue-Recherche sur le Couple et la Famille, 1993, 2ième trim.

RITTELMEYER, Christian. Kindheit in Bedrängnis. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 2007.

STEINER,Rudolf. Bases de la pédagogie (1922). Genève: EAR, 1988.

SACKS, Oliver. Musicophilia. Paris (Seuil), 2009

WINNICOTT, Donald W.  Jeu et réalité.  Paris: Gallimard, 1975.


For more information on Steiner-Waldorf education:  (Fédération des Ecoles Steiner en France) (International Association for Steiner-Waldorf Early Childhood Education)




[1]    Sensory overstimulation kills not only the imagination but also perception: «The onslaught of music is highly challenging to the auditory system : it is so sensitive that the overload carries serious consequences. One of the consequences is the increase in severe hearing loss». (Sacks,73)