Open-ended play can’t be assessed, so there’s no pressure to do something right. The child gets to access their own intrinsic motivation for what they want to do and why. Open-ended play gives them a chance to think: ‘What do I want? What do I need from this moment in what I’m doing?’ And that helps develop a habit of understanding that through life. When children are together, they get to invent rules and come up with them collectively, so it’s very collaborative, which is really different from doing what they are told or following instructions. Open-ended play meets the person where they are. So, if a child needs to be a little quieter that day and needs to have some contemplative play, there’s room to do that. With structured play, we are not always in touch with what we need, because there’s no space to ask ourselves.
In open-ended play, children are coming up with the rules together and asking, ‘what should we do and how should we do it?’ We have seven friends from the neighborhood, all different heights and ages, we have one ball, and we’ve got some sticks and a tree. What’s the game we’re going to invent with that? That anecdote is based on the story that a taxi driver once told me about his favorite type of play as a kid. There was a big field with a tree, and whatever the kids brought with them that day, they used to make a game. It wasn’t basketball or baseball; it was whatever game they could do with seven kids, ages six through twelve, and whatever combination of objects they had around to play with. Of course, there is conflict, and they resolve it together. There aren’t adults around to tell them how to, its just open-endedness that very heavily structured childhood does not afford.
Open-endedness lends itself to invention, because you’re making it up as you go. Sometimes you invent the problem to solve. I think I did a lot of that as a kid. We would make complicated courses to go over on our bikes, or take apart things in order to put them back together as a tinkering exercise. You’re not thinking about the systems that exist, you’re thinking about what doesn’t, and in that, there’s room to invent new things or innovate differently.
We camped a lot as a kid. My family would canoe across the lake, and there was no campground on the other side, it was just undeveloped woods. I remember we found this giant floating tree that kind of felt like a canoe, and we wanted to bring it back to where we were camping, but it was super water-logged and heavy. That’s all we did for three days, but it felt so important. It was all we cared about! But what were we doing? I don’t know, nothing really. Trying to move a stump ten feet, and it took us an hour. We made some oars, we had to swim and push it, and once it got stuck, we’d use the oars as levers to cantilever it over. Adventures! We just had adventures.
Educators and Early Childhood people were thinking about Social Emotional Learning before COVID, but it’s become a lot more relevant since the pandemic, because there were two years where kids were not socializing with peers, because they were trapped in their households. There’s a pressing need for children to learn how to interact with each other and with strangers. Learning conflict resolution and how to not get your way, how to negotiate and play with kids you don’t know and may not necessarily like, but they’re in your neighborhood so that’s who’s around. In our childhood play, that’s where we learn how to coexist with everybody – not just our friends. That’s where we learn how to engage with our community.
There aren’t a lot of learning materials where kids can collaborate the way they do with Rigamajig. Because it’s large, they need each other, so we see children cooperate, which in my mind means they help each other, but they aren’t necessarily working together. I might be building with my friend, but the group next door needs something we have; you wind up having an adjacent cooperation that is different from a direct cooperation. Play opportunities and learning materials that can facilitate that are more important than ever. Historically, that was considered a soft skill, which is ridiculous! Open-ended play also relates to SEL, because it gets children in touch with their own needs, for themselves, for their own sake.
Teaching is an art. Often, teachers go into it, because they have a gift for facilitating learning – but they aren’t always allowed to do that. The institutionalization of learning does not lend itself to the gift of teaching. However, there is room and there are moments that teachers get to be gifted and develop their curriculum and do things in the classroom that create the circumstances for beautiful learning to happen. At Rigamajig, we really like to support the teachers that are actively doing that. One example is that we are working with Carroll School who are using Rigamajig in their science class with children that have differences in the way that they learn and use language. It’s blowing my mind to learn about the ways they are using it, and it’s really exciting to learn from them. I can propose some ways for teachers to use Rigamajig so that teachers don’t have to invent it from scratch – teachers have a lot to do so I don’t expect everyone to have the capacity to do that. Most teachers take what we give and change it into something that’s their own, so it’s really fun when we get to have ongoing relationships with teachers who do that, and there are many. KIPP NYC is another group of schools that are using Rigamajig, and they are developing specific curriculum and project plans that they will share with us so we can share with everyone else! It’s my dream for Rigamajig when things like that happen.
For teachers using Rigamajig in their classroom, we have an abundance of resources on our website in our Project Plans section.
First and foremost, my own childhood. Whether you grew up in the playgrounds of NYC or in the woods like I did, it influences our understanding of everything – including play. As I started thinking about and started designing for play, the Adventure Playground movement and Playworkers in the UK and the way that they talk about child-directed play was hugely influential. AnjiPlay which focuses on child-directed, intrinsically motivated play. Art and creativity influence my understanding of play in the way that if I were a musician, music would. Jazz is like free play, in a way that sketching is for me.