Freedom within Structure: Safely fostering child-directed activity and movement

[From: Week 29 of Flow to Learn: A Parent’s Guide to Recognize and Support Your Child’s Flow State]

The more freedom we allow, the more structure we need to provide; this includes upholding structure and order in the environment as well as providing healthy boundaries for children (as explained in Week 30). The better your home is prepared for child-directed activity, the more you can relax and allow your child to take the lead. Create an atmosphere where your child feels confident being an explorer and learner. This includes eliminating distractions while nurturing and enhancing the learner’s spontaneous activities that lead to flow. Flow experiences where children visibly learn and thrive cannot be forced or rushed. They naturally happen when the time is right, and all we can do is continue to create suitable conditions. Below are some simple ways to create structure that allows more freedom:

Childproof each area. Make sure each flow station is safe for children. Here are some suggestions: cover electricity outlets, take everything potentially dangerous out of reach (matches, medication, toxic cleaners), cover table corners and edges with edge guards (especially for toddlers learning to walk), and outdoors make sure the area is safe in all ways, ideally even safe for walking barefoot. 

Select specific toys and learning materials. Often less is more. It’s easier for a child to focus when there are a few thoughtfully placed things that invite them to engage, instead of a lot of things that don’t give a specific, direct invitation. For instance, instead of a big pile of puzzle and board game boxes, only leave a few select puzzles and games out at a time. You can choose them together with your child or make the decisions and curate the materials yourself ahead of time. In order to avoid accumulating piles of toys and cluttering the space, experiment with a one-in, one-out rule for toys in the storage space.

Create simple systems for order. The simpler your system for order is, the more likely it will be used over time. Create a home for things, so you can say, “the crayons live here” and “the watercolors live there.” Here are some ideas: Provide big, open boxes, or baskets for various toys, such as a box for blocks, a basket for stuffed animals, another basket for toy cars, and a box for Legos. Offer board games and instruments on separate open selves if possible. Boxes and trays can be labeled with words or images, so it is clear where things go. 

Provide structure in the space. Define play areas to prevent an activity from taking over the whole room or home. For instance, offer a nook for block building and another area for arts and crafts.
Indoor Spaces can be defined through:

  • Area rugs and small portable rugs
  • Table, chairs, shelves
  • Moveable walls, curtains, moveable shelves, tables on wheels
  • Naturally-defined spaces using the architecture of a room
  • Outdoor Spaces can be defined or enclosed through..
  • Blankets on the ground
  • Ropes on the ground
  • Natural landmarks, such as trees
  • Outdoor furniture, such as tables and benches
  • Living fences, such as bushes
  • Gardens with clear borders
  • Elements on the ground, such as logs and rocks

Give mess a place. When we allow children to explore and play, naturally there will be periods when it gets messy, and that’s okay. It’s part of the process. But don’t let it get so out of hand that your own nervous system suffers. Think beforehand how much of a mess you can handle and empower yourself to stop a child’s self-chosen course of action if it feels too much. You are the guardian of the home. Try to allow some messes to be okay during an activity and then you create order together with the children afterward. There may even be an area in your home where you don’t mind a mess and where your child could leave a construction site of blocks, Legos, or other toys overnight or longer.

Provide a time structure. If necessary, give your child a time structure and help them keep it by letting them know how much time for play is left. Hang a big clock on the wall and teach them how to read it. Give gentle reminders before time is over (“In 10 minutes, when you see this on the clock, it’s clean up time,” or “In 2 minutes it’s clean up time.”) and let them know what is next, such as transitioning to dinner. Older children may enjoy setting the timer themselves, as a way of taking responsibility and developing time-management skills. Most children will go through periods when they are unable to stop a flow activity. Gently help them transition out of their flow state as explored in Parenting Insight #8.

Be a flow companion. Be close to your child and give suggestions, support and inspiration until they feel comfortable to go about their own activities.

“Reset” the flow stations regularly. Each season, or whenever you notice children lose interest in one or all of the flow stations, create a clean slate and offer a new start in the environment. You can take “stale” toys, crafting supplies, and learning materials away, and add different ones. You can move some furniture or relocate flow stations. Many parents notice this gives children a boost of energy and a greater ability to self-start projects.

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