When my oldest daughter was about eighteen months old, we experimented with organized sports for her a little. In retrospect, she was way too young – not too young to enjoy herself, but too young to be getting anything out of the “organized” part. At some point, she was climbing on the gym mats and licking the windows while the other parents were forcing kids that they were certain would become international soccer stars to adhere to the rules. I yelled to my daughter “Have fun kid! There’s no wrong way to play!”
I got some decidedly unkind looks. I elected not to return.
It’s important to note what you’re trying to get out of an experience. Some things can be fun while also serving a different end, and it’s fine to adhere to rules that are more conducive to achieving that end. But some things are play. Play is vital – you learn more from play than from just about anything else. It stretches you in amazing directions. People say that swimming is one of the best forms of physical exercise because it uses so many different muscle groups in so many ways. Play is like that, for your mind. You use so many parts of it!
But here’s the thing – the more structure, the worse play becomes at doing exactly that. The more external rules, the less the play itself can shape the player. Rules are fine, but they need to come from within the play itself. The players need to be deciding them, evolving them, dictating them to themselves and each other.
My two youngest children each got legos for Christmas. They love them. My son uses them purely as an input to his vast imagination machine, building and breaking constantly and just putting them together as he needs them to represent whatever elements of his story he needs. My daughter focused like a surgeon, carefully building exactly the structure depicted on the cover. They both chose their respective methods with no direction from me. They both loved it. And they both sharpened their minds in some way.
And my oldest daughter? Her self-discipline is amazing; she’s on her way to black belt and she’s ten years old. Instead of forcing her to do something counter to the way she wanted to play, I just let her play. And when it’s time to do something else, she’s all in – because play isn’t scarce to her. It isn’t something she needs to hoard. Play is the ocean she swims in.
There’s no wrong way to do it, except any way that’s not what you want. Other people want you to swim better, so they try to hold you underwater or keep you in the shallows, but both are wrong. You can’t push them in or keep them out – kids or adults! You don’t even have to show them the water. They know. All you have to do is stay out of the way and nearby to help if you’re asked – and cheer at every splash.