When did you stop playing?
About play and learning in teens

“I need to get serious and grow up!”

I was 15 years old, was just about to start high school, and thought it was important to start behaving more “grown-up” – invest fully in studies, grades and the future. Which I also thought meant stopping any form of play – stop climbing trees and stop “behaving like a child”.

The consequences were that I stopped being here and now. I stopped being myself and at the same time lost myself. It’s taken me many years to come back.

I often share this story when I work with adults in groups. Many of the dynamics I use are based on play because we humans are biologically designed to learn through play – just like any other mammal.

Once, a participant asked: “Weren’t you a little too old to play at 15?”. That’s when I realized that most people don’t see much value at all in play. I mean, I hadn’t either. After all, it was the whole reason why I decided to stop playing at 15...

It became painfully clear to me that we all have been programmed with the idea that play lacks any real value and is only for very young kids. We generally have no understanding of the importance of play to our learning, and it’s really unusual to see teenagers play. We´ve come to think of that as normal when actually it isn’t, simply because play is usually reserved for recess in the school setting,

Our society and school have effectively taken play out of us and made us believe that play is childish and of no value. Just like I internalized when I was 15 and decided to grow up.

All of this was on my mind recently when my son Teo, his dad and I went to a river nearby to have a family day. It is the rainy season, so the usually turquoise water is brown and it’s full of mud everywhere.

And he’s learning so much! But, his learning is playful. It doesn’t mean it’s any less focused or disciplined than someone who’s not playing.

Teo has for many years gone by the name “mud man”. He just loves mud and clay. And I had a great opportunity to observe how my 16-year-old is still playing – but also how play has changed as he evolves.

Like a small child, he lets himself be fascinated by the texture and that mushy, gooey feeling, and he has no issues with getting messy and dirty. On the contrary! He still explores completely freely, but also much more purposefully than when he was a child. I see him analyzing what happens if he does this or that, and how he tries his hand at it in a methodical way. He sets up hypotheses that he then tests to see if they hold.

When I think about it, that’s actually exactly how he goes about everything else he does, like when he creates his languages and its phonetics that he’s so captivated by. Or when he builds fictional worlds with landscapes with made-up flora, history and cultures.

He researches, investigates, shares ideas with friends and talks about it with me. And he’s learning so much! But, his learning is playful. It doesn’t mean it’s any less focused or disciplined than someone who’s not playing. It’s just that despite the setbacks (because they always arise), it is pleasurable and fun!

Learning through play is basically free exploration without external pressure to create a specific result. This is where I see learning takes place, completely spontaneously and without any adult directing or interfering with the process.

Schools get us to separate learning from playing, but when we do that we don’t seem to learn as much. As unschooling parents I think it’s a good thing to remember. Otherwise our schoolish minds might not recognize the beauty of what is happening in our children when we think they are “just” having fun!

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