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Play is a child’s work

2014 March 20
by Rachel Turiel


Because when you co-create your own homeschool co-op you get to choose the topics. Yes we did study play for four weeks!

Five years ago, before a hunting trip, Dan unloaded a pile of found junk (from the annual city-wide trash clean-up) into the backyard, promising me uninterrupted coffee and newspaper time while the kids feasted on their new stuff. The unravelling badminton rackets doubled as nets to dredge up treasures from deep within the compost pile. The five gallon buckets became personal swimming holes (with slow leaks); the broken fishing pole with its knotted-up line was golden: Col caught trout diapers and Rose fried ‘em up.

Isn’t this what the young entrepreneurs do? Take known objects and twist, stretch, dissect, rotate and stamp their own creativity on them until the combination is so promising dollar signs begin flashing in their eyes?

Isn’t this also what children do, daily, with no other agenda than the pursuit of fun?


Factoids abound on the benefits of play. Entire books have been written on the subject. Play develops children’s fine and gross motor skills, communication, collaboration, imagination, problem-solving and ability to focus. Playing allows ideas to synthesize and take root.

I’m more interested in what I can see.


The paper airplanes with tape tend to fly, Col’s words, “like a wounded duck.”

Col has folded up approximately 364 paper airplanes in the past six months. The sound of paper creasing is the very background music of our lives. Cooking dinner now holds the risk of careening airplanes landing in an open pot of soup. Who am I to say this isn’t worthwhile? With each trial and error his planes become faster, lighter, more enduring, (and necessitating an investment in protective eye equipment for whole family). While Col’s endless design and crafting binges scratches some unknowable internal itch, I see geometry, engineering, principles of flight, and a child in the flow of his own creativity.


I watch Rose morph through ten characters a day. She’s benevolent school teacher, bucking pony, playful puppy, salsa dancer with moves I envy, and strict mom doling out harsh punishments to her misbehaving son (played by Col). It’s said that reading fiction and memoir (okay, I added the memoir part, but it’s true, right?) engages the reader’s sense of empathy, allowing one to walk another’s path for a few hundred pages. I see Rose’s need to try on different characters, feeling what it might be like to be a orphaned unicorn. Yesterday on a hike, Rose wore a dog’s harness, alternating between the comfort of her friends walking her on leash through the sagebrush, and the freedom of throwing off the leash entirely, running free.


I try not to get bent out of shape when the children’s play includes glueing Legos to paper (as it did this very morning), or carting every dress-up item out of the bedroom until our livingroom has become a bouncy house of leotards and tulle. There’s a persnickety schoolmarm in me that wants the dollhouse furniture to stay in the dollhouse (as opposed to divvied up among ten purses). But I also want my children to be good at playing.


1…2…3…aim for the spinning fan!

I know I’m writing well when there’s nothing I’d rather be doing, when my mind is so engaged it’s pinging from one word to the next without even hearing the chocolate singing to me from the pantry. Col and Rose (and your peeps, too) are in this state ten different times a day: making magic from the very depths of their own wild mind. It’s sacred. It’s the daily special on the menu of childhood. It’s training for the gift of finding your passion as an adult. And as Leonie Dawson says, Figure out your passion, for your passion will lead you directly to your purpose.

I take comfort in the fact that right now my kids need little more than to be turned loose. Turned loose in the yard, at the park, in the woods, at the river, in their own house with their bedraggled collection of toys. Neurons are firing! Profound mental connections span new territory! But the kids don’t care, they’re just doing their work.


18 Responses leave one →
  1. Alanya permalink
    March 20, 2014

    Yes yes yes, love this, so well said.

  2. Becky permalink
    March 20, 2014

    your children are learning far more than my grandkids are learning in school I would dare guess. What is that thing that Rose is blowing and holding?

  3. Caraway permalink
    March 20, 2014

    Hi Rachel,
    Like I’ve said before, I would like to be one of your children. :-)
    love, Caraway

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      March 20, 2014

      Let’s plan that for our next reincarnation. :)

  4. March 20, 2014

    You may not realize this (I guess because I haven’t told you!) but a lot of projects you do with your kids, I end up doing with mine. We made each other word searches, and made lists of foods we do and don’t like. I love these ideas, and my sons think I am a genius and creative. I also love it when I don’t hear anything for awhile and I find my son playing Hot Wheel cars families, complete with fights and cooperation and compromise. I like public school for the structure, and I am happy our home life fosters the play time they need. So THANK YOU, and keep up the great learning/playing ideas, I love them! Happy Spring!

  5. March 20, 2014

    this is wonderful for at least a hundred reasons, but what i want to take away from it and remember, is that play is my work too. That I do better when I tell my imagination run wild, when i pick up something different, when i don’t let myself be ruled by the have-to’s.

  6. Marlene permalink
    March 20, 2014

    Hallelujah. We have learned, sort of, that sometimes when the kids are in a zone of play, and we have other agendas, that it’s best to shelve those and just let the play unfold. All the times we have interrupted their play to drag them to the skating rink, we end up thinking later that we should have just left them to their own, perfectly fine, devices. Also, it leaves me free to read my book, which is hard to do while skating.

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      March 20, 2014

      Marlene, I hear that. I’m often desperate to make plans, scared of the boredom/sibling fighting/chaos/clutter that a whole day at home can bring. And then the kids spiral into their cohesive world of play…at least for awhile.

  7. Nancy permalink
    March 20, 2014

    My passion is reading your blog! :)

    • Rachel Turiel permalink
      March 20, 2014

      Oh Nancy. So kind. Thank you.

  8. Susan S permalink
    March 20, 2014

    Just think of the existential angst avoided, when a person grows up with confidence, knowing how to enjoy work because they’ve done it all their lives. Boggles the mind.

  9. Chepkirui permalink
    March 21, 2014

    Hello from the big city!

    You remind me of a recent dinner table conversation with our four-year old:
    Child: Let’s have a conversation.
    Me: OK. What would you like to talk about?
    Child: Playing.
    Me: (With silent lightbulbs going off: Of course! What else would a child want to talk about??) What do you think playing is?
    Child: when you do something or pretend to be something.

    Thanks for your beautiful writing.

  10. LISA H permalink
    March 23, 2014

    Hi Rachel, I know this is way off subject, but I had trouble contacting you. It is about the Ginger Ale recipe you purchased previously. I am into phase 2 my concoction has been moved to individual sealed mason jars, with about 3 inches of head space, on the kitchen counter. My question(s) 1. Does the gingerale stay on the counter for the full 2-3 weeks? Question 2. Do I occasionally open the jar to prevent pressure build up?

  11. Terra permalink
    March 24, 2014

    What a wonderful post! I have been reading your blog for a while and find such inspiration from you and your writing. It’s really intricately beautiful in that what you paint with your words is so many times detailed in just how I feel about life with my children. To see it in words is so affirming and makes my heart happy and filled. We homeschool our two boys (5 and 7) and wouldn’t have it any other way. Their pure joy every single day to just be alive, the incredible depths of their imagination, their very individual and distinct personalities…well, it’s magical and I love the freedom we have to let them get carried away in that play every single day. Thanks so much for sharing your writing!


  12. Andrea permalink
    March 24, 2014

    Oh sister, I needed this right now. Boy child just turned six (insert self face slap) and people want to know: what are we doing with him???

    Playing!!! Of course. And he is really getting good at it. Yesterday we had a picnic, smashed some play dough, trains, hide and seek, (sorta) rode a bike, carried around and cared for a nearly dead ladybug, and spent major time perfecting his trampoline back flip; all the while yelling ‘mom, watch me!’

    So ya, boy child has learned how to play, so that’s what we are doing. Making up for toddler years and getting crazy with it. Unstructured, silly play.

  13. March 24, 2014

    Running out the door to pick up my kids, but couldn’t leave without saying thank you for this. Preach, sister. Preach. xo

  14. Melissa permalink
    March 24, 2014

    oh yes. when i used to do “play therapy” with children, adults wondered all the time, “why are you ‘just playing’ with my kid? when does the actual therapy happen?” i know you aren’t talking about therapy but that’s what came to mind reading this post.

    i especially like eavesdropping on avi when he’s in the tub, surrounded by legos (which drives me sort of nuts but the legos are everywhere else so why not the tub?), riffing to himself. and he has so much time at school that when he’s with us he has carte blanche to do whatever. except pinch his sister. even if she pinched first. and shameless brag: he read the back of the book, mr. silly, to me tonight. maybe i cried a little. he stumbled over the word strange but had no problem with nonsenseland. go figure.

    also? your kiddos are so, so beautiful! xoxo ps. took yossi for an ergo hike in tilden today. me and all the berkeley seniors with their dogs. one lady advised me i was “young and crazy” to take my baby on a walk that was clearly meant for dogs. could hear cars on grizzly peak but whatevs. we are trying to find nature where we can get it!

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