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The value of unstructured play, a father’s reflections

May 19, 2015

For a nice surprise, leave playtime to the kids

As published in the Daily Hampshire Gazette

Something is brewing in our backyard. It’s called the Potion Club. It started last summer. By autumn our yard looked like the town recycling center, after a tornado.

My wife, Lori, and I informed our 5-year old Adam and 8-year old Zoe — along with their posse of neighborhood friends – that it was time for a fall cleanup. Winter followed and piles of snow offered different types of play.

Spring arrived, and our backyard — modest in size and unkempt in appearance — was again transformed.

The club lacks a formal mission statement or creed, to my knowledge, and when I asked its confident, young members: “What is the purpose of the club?” I was told, with matter of fact intonation: “To make potions!”

Exactly when and how the idea of potion making — collecting and mixing natural materials in recycled glass and plastic bottles — emerged in our neighborhood is an anthropological wonder. My hunch is that our nature-loving daughter, Zoe — who loves to collect flowers, leaves, berries, sticks and rocks for making art — had something to do with it.

Of course, parents have cautioned club members not to ingest the concoctions, and to the best of my knowledge no potion has ever been consumed, nor directly applied to any creature, living or dead.

As the love of potions hit critical mass, the number of budding herbalists grew to include most of the 17 kids (ages 5 to 14) who live on our one-block dead-end street. Some members began wearing latex gloves — pilfered from family first aid kits — when engaged in the messy work of mashing berries and mixing wood ash with rainwater.

Others donned faux safety glasses. All assembled stashes of yogurt containers, egg cartons, soup cans and the like for storing collected materials.

The group began convening club meetings to discuss the art of blending and brewing, offering members the opportunity to practice both writing and mathematical skills in individual notebooks where alchemical secrets are recorded.

Still, the need to manage the emerging enterprise became apparent — even to the youngest members — and so political and economic systems were formalized.

The club’s governance system is simple and effective. The younger children appointed one of the elder members, then a recent 5th-grade graduate, as the club’s first president. Maddy, in her grand benevolence diffused inter-personal conflict with grace, holding her ground when warranted — especially with her boisterous brother, Jasper, and our stubborn Adam.

Remarkably, at the start of the club’s second season, a peaceful transfer of power occurred when Maddy imposed a one-season term limit on herself, abdicating leadership to the younger members. A power vacuum threatened to topple the fledgling democracy as some members jostled for position with verbal force.

Overhearing the unfolding controversy while I worked in the garden — fearing the impending need for martial law — I meekly offered that members consider taking turns being president.

A roar of approval followed, as did adoption of a rotating presidency, and a roster of successors was selected by random pick of numbers that appeared on crumpled slips of paper.

To reduce frequent territorial squabbles, each club member selected a designated workspace (technically called an office) — prime real estate includes the corner of the patio, behind the Norway maple, both top and bottom of the play structure, and next to the cluster of sugar maples. In addition, club members agreed not to enter another club member’s office without permission, nor disturb another club member’s materials.

Similarly, the club’s economic model has reflected remarkable efficiency. Given the use of natural and recycled materials, both start-up and operating costs have been zero, excepting the occasional box of food coloring and bottle of liquid soap (to add color and bubbles to the potions).

The club adopted a formal currency system — small stones, which are readily collected in the nearby alley. Quickly learning the consequence of unregulated commercial activity — the wanton expression of greed by a few cunning members — the kids imposed a rule that strictly prohibits the wholesaling of potions.

To date, only three parental rules have been imposed: Hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., all potions must be stored in containers that are capped at days end, and members are required to clean up before leaving the yard.

If anyone had tried to convince me that a way to engage a roaming pack of young children is to have them collect natural objects and put them in used containers, I would have politely smiled and thought them foolish.

And, if anyone had suggested that the activity would bond a neighborhood of kids (and their parents), cultivate an experiential understanding of governance and economics, and keep a dozen kids entertained for hours at a time — all for free — I would have said, “That’s child’s play,” because no adult would ever think of that.

John Engel is a father, husband, organizational consultant and the coordinator of the Healthy Men and Boys Network of western Massachusetts. He can be reached through his website,

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Barbara Ann Bennett permalink
    May 20, 2015 4:21 pm

    I think this is my favorite post so far! Loved it! Takes me back to my own childhood when we played outside from dawn to dusk creating the most delightful worlds in our imaginations! Love to the family.

  2. May 20, 2015 5:45 pm

    I’m so impressed with how the children are playing and enjoying the natural world. I’m 56 and have had frequent conversations with others my age about how children today don’t have unscheduled play time like we did growing up. Our summers were spent romping through the woods, building forts, collecting stones – we wouldn’t have thought of staying inside on a summer’s day. I’m so happy to know this new generation is learning, playing, relaxing, using their imaginations and how to get along with others by being outdoors and using found materials. I can only hope this leads to a load of environmental conservationists and that they share their passion with others as they grow. Wonderful article.

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