For the Love of Balls

RIE Foundations Course 2018 Day 3


Let the Children Play!

Its Highs and Lows


It is often easy to say, “Let the children play!”

Today, I have actually empathized with the highs and lows of this task.

We were told we would be given 40 minutes with open-ended toys. I do understand that open-ended toys are fascinating for children. But I doubted that my childhood spirit of play would allow me to stay engaged for that long.

For those who are new to the concept of “open-ended toys,” the idea is that the most basic of items (can lids, colanders, silicone pot holders, metal springs) have no obvious purpose, and that predisposes them to be perfect items for creative play. After all, if you have the opposite—say, a red car with four wheels— the toy already dictates how you must play it. Replace the object with a spring, and you may be enthralled by its depth, its composition, its timbre, and its never-ending uses. By having open-ended toys, the focus goes on the child’s ability to master his objects, and direct his play. RIE’s rule of thumb for play is this: passive object encourages an active child.

(By the way, here’s a shameless plug: The playroom at— which was designed with child education specialists in Germany— is open-ended. The structures are made so that children decide how they engage with the playroom, which leads to many options of challenge and fun.)



Solitary Play

In this activity, we were directed to do solitary play (playing on our own, versus parallel play, associative play and collaborative play, all of which I will note below). That meant that I could go back and forth and select as many open-ended toys that I wanted, and play with them for as long as I needed. At the same time, RIE principles advocate for uninterrupted play—which meant that any “facilitator” had to move as unobtrusive as possible, to help me find my space to play.

This was a revealing experience, showing me my own play personality.

I found myself going to a corner where no one could see how I was playing. Now, I understand why children sometimes want to stay in a corner far away from us—playing is sacred, and sometimes private. At the start, I was “thinking” of how a child would play… but it did not take long for me to find my own “agenda” in play.


My Project Plan

I had a few random items—balls of different colors and textures, silicone molds and some wooden shapes. I started by bouncing balls off the materials, and being fascinated by how I could flip one thing by bouncing another on it. After this, a different spirit of play came over me—almost instinctively and without planning, I started piling items on top of each other, until I felt I could create something aesthetically “stunning” and intricate.

I kept going back to the mat where all our play items were laid—I kept thinking, “Balls! I want balls! Colorful ones, big ones, those made of yarn, rubbery ones!” I felt like a minion on a mission. If I could take a step back and watch myself, I was like the toddler with a dead-set mission and singular goal: collect, collect, collect. And yet, there was purpose and direction—collect the BALLS!

I could go on and on, but the remarkable realization for me was the sense of respect for a child with a “job” to do, a mission to accomplish, and a work of art to complete. I barely cared about what others did—except if I saw someone else holding a BALL. (Later on, I specifically was looking for complementary squares— which to my dismay, were being played with by another participant!)



At the same time, I began to feel a sense of protectiveness over my work. I found myself feeling worried every time I left my “nest.” I would have been so upset if anyone broke my work down.

You know what? Now I can say I truly understand the grief of a child who is asked to leave his “workplace” before he is done. It is unfinished business, after all. If he worked so hard to build something up, why should he just leave something that he feels ownership over?

When it was time to clean up, I was so heartbroken, that I could not resist the narcissistic urge to capture my work of art on photo (which you will find at the top of this page.) Whether you find it amazing or not, the important thing is that I enjoyed every minute of it, and it reminded me of my innate desire to create.



Uninterrupted Play

I will point, however, one thing: RIE emphasizes play that is uninterrupted. At some point, our facilitator Deborah interfered in my reveries, to let me experience what it felt to have my “flow” interrupted during play.

She said something that seemed well intended, but very harmless. “Crisel, balls are for rolling, not for stacking up in art.” Ouch.

The experiment worked. How much power those words had! For a few seconds, I stared stunned at my work. From extreme pride, I felt doubt. It took me a while to get myself together and say, “It doesn’t matter what she says—It’s how I want to see things that matters.” I will admit that it diminished the glow of the work I did, and it made me think of how many children’s ideas have been dampened by well-meaning interruptions.

For sure, I’ll be thinking twice before interfering in child’s play.


A few terms:

Solitary Play – A child playing on her own

Parallel Play – Children playing side by side, but not interacting

Associative Play – Children interacting (but not necessarily cooperating, i.e. taking toys from each other)

Cooperative Play – Children enjoying playing together (i.e. passing the ball to each other)