Author: Eytan Fichman

Posted by Alythea

Just looking at an article in the NY Times that might be of interest . .

“The Movement to Restore Children’s Play Gains Momentum Play helps develop crucial skills, advocates say as they try to pull children and their parents away from the screen.”


John Watkins

I’d say it’s a sad day when kids need a “playbook” to (re)learn how to play!  On the other hand, if we don’t find a way to do what one parent said at the end of the article, “I think a big part of free play is having space to do it in, a space that isn’t ruled over by adults,” then we are really in trouble.  And how did we get so obsessed with test scores and liability for injuries that we no longer allow recess in elementary schools or playspace in kindergartens?  No outdoor play for kids unless adults are along to supervise?  Wow.



I’m currently living on the island of Zanzibar, within a culture where children have full and free reign over their play time, with very little to no supervision from public adults or parents. It’s incredible to watch– children of all ages play in small and large groups with very few store-bought toys — it’s all home-made or co-crafted to make it fit the game or scenario. They play for hours, until it gets dark and are called home for a night time snack (the big meal is lunch here).

Even when there’s rough-tumble moments, adults very rarely step in to intervene. There’s a lot of peer judgement and jury. I’ve learned so much about children’s capacity to play, and learn while they play, simply by sitting out in the big, ramble-shamble local park and watching endless iterations of play, laughter, conflict, resolution, over and over again until it’s time for bed. Older children are respected as leaders/teachers, but even the tiniest children are usually welcome to play (or sometimes fight for the chance to play).

This is all, of course, informal observation, but I’ve been humbled by what I’ve seen, and believe all over again in the power of play as a learning forum, because the children are actually free to make mistakes, fall down, fail, help each other up, and start over again.

And they welcome me each time I ask to join. I’ve learned really great hand-clapping games.
So much fun. So relaxing, too!

Love from Zanzibar,


David Behrstock

Wow, what a great description. Thank you! So rare for most of us to get out of our context to learn how other cultures do it. Yeah for play. And, I might add, most of us adults need time for unsupervised play too — thought the supervision we need freedom from might be our own internalized authoritarians.

I’m curious about your observations about justice (somewhat indicated by your parenthetical “and sometimes fight”); How would you decribe how they make decisions and mediate conflict — I ask this because the mainstream fear in the US I think might (among other legal issues) focus on the Lord of the Flies type situation happening. Many parents and teachers just dont’ trust children to resolve their own conflicts without becoming dominated by the bullies in the crowd. I don’t share that concern – at least not to anything like the degree institutionalized in many schools and homes in the U.S. But your vantage point is so informative, please tell us: To what degree to do you see: compassion, listening, justice, vs. more dominated by power, control and might makes right?


Hi David,
Thanks for your comment and question — not sure whether to answer you here or privately so I’ll be brief and then we can continue the conversation if you’d like.

My initial response is that yes, I’ve definitely seen moments of bullying that sometimes leads to fighting/tumbling among the children (boys and girls, around the ages of 4-10, the older ones are sort of too cool for that, there’s more verbal sparring). From what I’ve noticed, it seems like the younger kids are usually fighting over who gets to direct a game or scenario, or sometimes a child will take things in a direction others don’t like. There are definitely “alpha” personalities that lead to bruises, scraped knees, tears and wailing.

BUT I’ve also seen moments of sweetness and tenderness among the neighbourhood kids. Sometimes this moves along familial lines – everyone is a big family but when trouble starts, older brothers and sisters will defend immediate family. Other times, a kid will just notice that a less powerful/vocal little one wants in on a game and he or she will just take their hand and lead them to the circle or scenario. There’s a lot of making room and then squishing in even more, closeness is a big part of play here.

Again, I’m not an expert by any means, merely a neighbour and friend here, not really thinking in research mode, but the observations have been rich and really wonderful. Children here are raised completely differently.

As a perfect example, when my two-year-old little friend started to get fussy, his aunt simply struck a match and handed it to him to marvel. At first I started, and got worried. But he was totally mesmerized. She walked away, and when it was time, an older boy who was standing nearby helped him blow out the match, and it was all done calmly, with wonder, and with joy.

I thought, that is something that would rarely happen in the States.

Sorry, I was trying to be brief!

Thanks for the conversation,


Madeleine Hewitt

Dear All:

I loved reading the reflections because I’ve had the great fortune of working overseas my whole career, and I am fascinated by the topic discussed.

Reading Amanda’s description of Zanzibar reminded me of my time there, as well as in South Africa.

In Johannesburg, my husband and I would sometimes spend time at the park in Diepsloot, a township near our school. We marveled at the children who played all day alone –2 year olds to 12 year olds – all playing and taking care of each other for hours without any adult supervision.

When one boy leaped over the teeter totter (in game with a pack of others), he tripped and hurt himself fairly badly, and as he scooted off and away, the other kids were laughing at his mishap. But as I watched I could see too that they were checking on him, and he rallied and grinned, taking a little time out to nurse a wound before deciding to get right back in and play some more!

In Kenya we stayed with the Masai out in the Loita Hills and they too would spend all day in various age-groups. Often the older child (even a 10 year old) would have full responsibility for a two year old, all day long.

The children would move in groups, play in groups, and be alone for hours or all day – and even sometimes all night – in age groups. Interestingly, in both settings I saw much more laughter and gaming than bullying or harm.

But still, I believe that at times of conflict, the Alpha personalities (girls and boys) dominated in each of these settings and could be observed as the controlling force, either for care or for ridicule/dominance.

As for the role of culture:

When it comes to ‘justice,’ I think culture plays a significant role. I felt that in Taiwan, the individual learned to follow the group norms. In Saudi (where I am currently) I feel the individual learns to follow the pecking order (a learned pecking order defined by community status).

Culture plays a significant role socially and I never get tired of observing human behavior (all ages) and reflecting on the impact of culture on behavior (my own included…..).

Over the years I’ve found myself asking the T-440 question “What do you notice” and after observation I find myself able to adopt a more anthropological perspective.

Regarding school approach, in every International school where I’ve worked we end up addressing the playground issue (Enough supervision? Consequences? Less needed? More needed? Bullying? Free Play?)

Our School team definitely favors unstructured time for students,and we explain to parents regularly what we feel are the benefits. (Note: Parents from different cultures have different expectations regarding Supervision, with North Americans the most frequent critics of our practices and calling for more adult supervision on the Playground).

Our practice includes coaching inside and outside of the classroom the behaviors that we value as a 3rd culture school, but helping the students solve the issues, and giving them independent time to do so.

Thanks for the inviting conversation!



Eytan Fichman

Many children visit my wife’s pediatric clinic here in Haiphong, Vietnam. I brought toys from the USA for the waiting area. If I give a child a puzzle-type of toy, for which there is an ostensibly ‘correct’ solution, many parents will immediately ‘solve’ the puzzle for their children, so that their children will know ‘the right way’ of doing it. Letting children ‘discover’ the answer or explore playfully, yielding unconventional solutions, is encouraged by a minority of parents.

Eytan Fichman


Growing up during the Vietnam War in a family of 12 kids, we played at any moments that guns and bombs stopped. We chased each other in the rain naked, divided into teams for sling shots, used lemons and limes as balls, used rocks for many different games, etc. We had so much fun unless we got caught by our mother who would whip us for fears that we would step on mines. What I want to say here is that we learned to adapt to situations, be flexible, and be creative when needed. As we’ve grown up, we’ve always looked and made used for whatever available around us. Without free play, kids are missing these skills. It’s funny to see people who lost the remote control for a TV to spend a whole time to look for it instead of stepping forward to push the button by hand.

On the other hand, we had to follow the “rules” from parents, older siblings, adults and authorities, especially for girls. We were not allowed to explore or discover because our parents and adults know “best”. For example, we had to follow the lines of letters until we could write exactly like those printed letters. What we missed are analytical and critical thinking.

Thanh Nguyen

Eytan Fichman

Dear Thanh Nguyen,
Thank you for your discussion about play and your stirring description of playtime during wartime.

I am a student of Vietnamese culture now, so all such information is truly of help to me. It helps to know more about how you “learned to adapt to situations, be flexible, and be creative when needed.” I am teaching architecture students at the University level here so the learning / teaching situation around creative work in Vietnam has become very important to me. I go back and forth from the pediatric clinic puzzle toys to the design studio student projects and wonder about / improvise with ways to scaffold learning contructively in this cultural context.

Now that I think about it more, I do see kids play quite freely by themselves in the little yard across the street in our village . . . so likely these post-war kids are getting a share of what you had when you played in the rain . . . and one of the kids I teach English to on the weekends described the detective-like search process of finding solutions to hard math problems – he likes math a lot . . . so probably my initial comments were unfairly incomplete. It seemed so different from Amanda’s Zanzibar, but maybe the comparison is more complicated than I first thought.



Rhoda Kanevsky

Dear T-440 graduates and friends,
I have enjoyed reading this conversation about play – it is a privilege to learn about experiences that folks are having in other cultures.

I can add my brief experience in Japan, when I visited schools in about 1998 as part of a Fulbright grant for teachers. At recess time in an elementary school I visited, teachers had tea together while children were left unsupervised in their classrooms, free to go outside to play or to stay inside, eat their recess snacks, chat and move freely around the room playing their own games. At lunch time, the whole school was outside for a full 30 minutes (it might have been more, I don’t remember) after they ate lunch. The younger kids played games together in one part of the yard and the older kids – middle school age – organized their own ball games and played together in different areas of the playground. There was no supervision; I saw no conflicts or problems. The kids seemed very happy and it seemed like everyone was included. This is of course not a big sample, and I know that high school teachers we spoke to talked about bullying among older kids. But it was certainly impressive to see that the younger kids took care of themselves, without an adult present, and there was a long period of play for them every day at lunch time and at recess in the morning.

For a wonderful account of play at the Mission Hill School in Boston, which I’m sure many of you know, there is a new book called “Playing For Keeps,” by Deborah Meier, Brenda Engel and Beth Taylor (Teachers College Press, 2010). It is delightful.

It’s always good to see what’s possible, despite the repressive attitudes in most areas of the country. My daughter is having a hard time finding a kindergarten in Brooklyn which is not an “academic kindergarten.” It’s disheartening to enter a kindergarten in most public school these days where there are no blocks, paint, sand, etc, and no time to play. All desks and worksheets.
Hoping for the pendulum to swing sometime soon . . .

Best to all,

Ana Vaisenstein

Rhoda, while in Japan did you notice that Japanese children move freely and on their own around the city including trains?  I’ve noticed very young-kindergartners taking a train on their own, unsupervised groups of elementary school children in museums-sometimes they were loud and silly- but no-one bothered.  So your description of recess time matches many of the things I observed outside of school.



Hi T440 friends,

I would like to add on the two messages below…

Being Japanese growing up in Japan, I can picture how it was
like in the school yard. But I also think it must be quite different now in
2011. Because of all the portable nintendo games, cellphone games etc, the kids
do not play the same way they did back a decade ago. I think you can see
similar in the US and other economically developed countries… Also, because
of the academic pressure, you will rarely see kids playing in playground after
school and over the weekend. Very sad…

I live in NYC and have a kindergartner. What Rhoda described is the exact reason why we decided to send him to an independent school. He even got in to the Central Park East Elementary School which Deborah first started. I think I really didn’t like the fact that there is an influence from the public school system even in that school. I simply do not want my son to learn to take test. I want him to be in the environment that curiosities of students are appreciated, valued and kept in the center of learning.

Although I like my son’s school, if I have known
this school, I have probably tried this school for him as well:

This is a school created by the member of Blue Man
Group and provides an education similar to Reggio’s approach. Very
interesting… My chair who has an early childhood education background speaks
highly of this school and she visited both Reggio in Italy and this one in NYC.
(not far from Brooklyn!)


I don’t think it’s particularly useful to categorize and value schools based on their public or private status. Sadly, “academic” kindergartens can be found in all kinds of schools; happily, so can teachers who are dedicated to making sure children have lots of time for self-directed exploration and play. Public school teachers, bearing the pressures of constantly increasing standardized, reportable data, need ongoing, vocal support from their communities to provide rich, engaging experiences for children outside or alongside the often narrow district-supported curricula for which they are also responsible.

At our urban k-8 school, we are thinking again about our outdoor play space and the materials children find in it. Our formal recess time includes children from 5 to 13, so there is lots of opportunity for supervision by older children, not just adults. We want to encourage the creation of structures, exploration of mechanical devices (pulleys, levers, etc) and whole body and collaborative efforts, while acknowledging concerns about safety (splinters, bangs and bruises). I’m wondering about other people’s experiences with playgrounds containing large, raw, heavy construction materials that can be used in endless ways over time and by children in a wide age range. What do your playgrounds look like? What are the best raw materials you’ve observed children using?



In the New Yorker (July 5, 2010) there is an article about such playgrounds. It’s called “State of Play” and subtitled “How tot lots became places to build children’s brains.” The abstract is here and I’ll also paste it in below. (The New Yorker is available full text through several databases, and most public libraries offer free access to at least one (General OneFile, Academic OneFile, Educator’s Reference Complete, LexisNexis Academic, etc.), so there’s no need to be discouraged by the paywall on the New Yorker site!)

OUR LOCAL CORRESPONDENTS about playgrounds and new playground designs in New York City. Writer describes the opening of the first municipal playground in New York, in Seward Park on the Lower East Side, in October, 1903. The Seward Park playground, which was largely the project of a citizens’ group called the Outdoor Recreation League. Since then, more than seven hundred playgrounds have been built in New York City. Writer visits the Seward Park playground with David Rockwell, a New York architect. Discusses the Imagination Playground, Rockwell’s contribution to playground design. Five years in the making, it is scheduled to open later this summer at Burling Slip, at the South Street Seaport. Rockwell’s playground has no monkey bars, or swings, or jungle gyms. It has almost no fixed equipment at all, except for a dual-level sandpit; a pool with running water; four masts equipped with ropes and pulleys; and a sixteen-foot tower in the form of a crow’s nest. In a single concession to the traditional playground vernacular, there is a slide. The Imagination Playground will, however, have hundreds of “loose parts”: big lightweight blocks made from molded foam. The blocks will be augmented by other bits of playable hardware: wooden wheelbarrows, car tires, plastic barrels, and the like, with which children can make structures, build vehicles, construct water channels, and otherwise create an environment from scratch. In association with a play-advocacy group called Kaboom, Rockwell has been marketing the loose parts as the Imagination Playground in a Box: this summer, ten playgrounds around the five boroughs will be provided with a set each. Mentions a playground in Battery Park that is being designed by Frank Gehry and tells about recently built New York playgrounds designed by the firm of Michael Van Valkenburgh. Discusses the history and evolution of playgrounds, including the European ideas of “junk playgrounds” and “adventure playgrounds.” Over the past century, the thinking about playgrounds has evolved from figuring out how play can instill young citizens with discipline, to figuring out how play can build brains by fostering creativity and independent thinking. Writer visits the South Street Seaport Museum, where a Playground in a Box is kept for visiting school groups. Describes a group of Manhattan fourth graders playing with the loose pieces.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Need an account? Register now!