It All Takes Time!

Let’s get right to the heart of the matter: children need more time. Time to play, explore, think, daydream, imagine, and simply be children. They deserve better than being herded like cattle from one activity to the next all day long. But let’s be honest: kid time is totally different than adult time. It can often take twenty minutes to decide where to play and yet another twenty for the preplay negotiations! We are forty minutes in, and, to some adult eyes, the “play” hasn’t even started yet! It can take thirty-five minutes to put on a shoe! I met a mom who told me that her three-year-old can sum up a twenty-seven-minute episode of Paw Patrol in seventy-two minutes. Hard-and-fast, rigid daily schedules make me antsy. Why? Because out of one side of our mouth we say we want high levels of executive function and self-regulation skills and out of the other we insist on posting daily schedules that chop a child’s day up into twenty-minute time blocks. You can’t have the former if you insist on the latter.

Children need long periods of uninterrupted free time to explore their environment.

Let me elaborate. One of the current hot topics in early childhood education is the development of both executive function (EF) skills and self-regulation skills. EF skills assist children in planning, decision- making, memory, flexible shifting from one task to another, and, among other things, managing feelings as well as unwanted thoughts and emotions. Kenneth Ginsburg, lead author of the 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics report on play, tells us that free play gives children time to discover their interests and tap into their creativity and that it is a “crucial element for building resilience,” which they will need to be happy, productive adults. And in their 2014 study, researcher Jane Barker and her colleagues reported that free time in children’s lives predicts high levels of self-directed executive functioning.

The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University tells us that having EF skills assists us in planning, focusing, switching gears, and juggling multiple tasks; hence executive function frequently being referred to as the air traffic control center of your brain. EF and self- regulation skills depend on three types of brain function: working memory (able to retain information over a short period of time), mental flexibility (able to sustain or shift attention in response to different demands and/or settings), and self-control (resisting impulsivity).

Here is a quick block play scenario showing these three functions in action:

Working memory: My tower fell over a minute ago. I need to remember what I did so I can adjust my building this time so it doesn’t fall down again.

Mental flexibility: Hmmmmmm, I wonder how my building will be different if I construct it in the sandbox. I wonder if I can make it again but with Legos instead of wooden blocks.

Self-control: Not throwing blocks in frustration when the building falls a second time and not screaming at other kids who come too close.

Children with high EF skills are collaborative, persistent, cooperative, flexible thinkers with high levels of self-regulation—and a predictor of high EF skills is (wait for it) long periods of free time where the children are able to direct their play and the choices they make.

Why is this so important for us to know? Because if you scroll through Fast Company articles, ask any hiring manager, talk to a Fortune 500 company CEO, or even do a quick Google search of “skills employees are lacking,” it won’t take long to see a pattern. Sure, they can speak a couple of languages, they can code, and they are masters at search engine optimization, but they aren’t collaborators, they have a hard time problem solving, and they have poor communication skills. While our culture often refers to skills like these as “soft skills,” they are just as important (although ignored for so long now that I’d say they might be more important) as more technical ones. The Partnership for 21st Century Learning (and dare I say common sense) tells us that these are the skills our children will need to “be ready” for the future:

  • adaptability
  • agility
  • attention to detail
  • collaboration
  • communication skills
  • coping skills
  • creativity
  • critical thinking
  • curiosity
  • flexibility
  • imagination
  • leadership
  • people skills
  • problem solving
  • teamwork

Do you know where and when each and every one of those skills is being crafted, nurtured, developed, practiced, and mastered? When children are playing.

Want children to be “ready”? Then they need long periods of uninterrupted free time to play. Seems pretty straightforward, right? But is it? What would you call A LONG TIME? An hour? Two? All day? Until they are done? I’d say at least an hour, with the ideal being that children are able to stay at a task until they choose to be done. If we claim to want high EF skills but refuse to provide the time required to nurture them, we are walking an ethical tightrope.

How would you define UNINTERRUPTED? Well if we define interrupt as breaking the continuity or stopping the process, then UNinterrupted means not doing those things.

And FREE TIME? When I think of free time, I imagine a block of time where I am able to do, think, or act without feeling obligated to do anything other than what it is I’m choosing to do at that moment. I’m not sure if anything less than an hour is anything more than a break. And if what I do during “free time” is chosen by someone else, it’s not “free” and it is most definitely not play. Why not? Because of Peter Gray’s first characteristic of play: that it is freely chosen and I can quit when I am done. And if what I am being told to do during “free time” is really adult-driven learning agenda in disguise, we have violated Gray’s second characteristic of play as well.

Bruno Bettelheim reminds us that the “getting ready to play” can be developmentally more important than whatever ends up getting played out. Think about it. Figuring out who gets to use the red truck or who gets the favorite shoes, all the compromising, negotiating, bartering, badgering, turn taking, and the putting of their own individual needs on pause in an effort to keep the play going are indicators of high levels of executive functioning and spot-on self-regulation skills. When we take this valuable time away from children, we deprive them of the opportunity to master the very skills we claim we want them to have.

If a pattern develops in which telling children to GO PLAY! is continually followed by way too short of a time frame to actually do it and never enough time to finish what was started, or if it becomes apparent that CLEANING UP (the product) is more important than the PLAY (the process), know what happens? You stop exploring stop investigating stop painting stop building stop negotiating stop playing because you reach a point of not bothering. I was told once by a group of young children, “Ms. Lisa, we used to build big block towers, but it was always time to put them away.”

If we are always looking at what is coming next, we miss out on what is unfolding right in front of us. If we are always in a hurry to clean it up, we shortchange the children of the time they need to fully engross themselves in play. When children aren’t hurried or interrupted, they get long periods of uninterrupted free time, which allows for deep discoveries, meaningful conversations, playful learning, and, dare I say, the acquisition and development of essential lifelong skills such as adaptability, agility, collaboration, flexibility, negotiation, communication, imagination, and problem solving.


Excerpts from the book: Lisa Murphy on Being Child Centered published by Redleaf Press.

Chapter 1: Children Are Provided Long Periods of Uninterrupted Free Time to Explore Their Environment

Copyright 2019 by Lisa Murphy. Reprinted with permission from Redleaf Press.

Lisa Murphy on Being Child Centered

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About the Author Lisa Murphy

Lisa Murphy

Lisa Murphy, MEd, has spent more than 20 years in early childhood education, teaching and working with children in various environments. As the founder of Ooey Gooey, Inc., Lisa’s mission is to assist in the transformation of early childhood education through her more than 200 workshops and keynotes each year. Using humor and real-life anecdotes, she connects with audiences and is recognized for her ability to link hands-on activities to educational standards, her outspoken advocacy, and her commitment to creating child-centered and play-based early childhood environments.