Children need a private life!

Susanne Bregenzer

“We need a bucket of water.” Done: out into the sunny garden. Three stark naked boys jump laughing through a puddle on the terrace. 

“We’re mixing poison.” Busily they crush sidewalk chalk and dissolve it in water. Soon all three boys are no longer naked but beautifully covered in body paint, immersed in play, warmed by the sun … because now they have off. Off, that means not learning anything right now. Doesn’t it? They will simply live for the moment and play. 

And the tasks? School? Tutoring? What will become of them? They should be practising to read, hold a pencil, do arithmetic? They have to hiss the S properly and perform hand-eye coordination as instructed? Don’t they? 

Would it not be much more important for them to spend their days learning with children of the same age? After all, we are talking about their future here! Their success and happiness in life. Later on! Furthermore, they should participate in sports programmes, check their diet for themselves and do physical exercise so that they become healthy, sporty, smart, fit and tough and all career opportunities are open to them. 

To ensure the work-life balance, politicians are now proposing 24-hour childcare. Full-time school is on the advance. “Have you still not returned to work?” I am often asked. “No, I haven’t. But I work. Every day. And during the night. All the time!” 

And what is the purpose of my work? I work so that my children are allowed to have a private life. For every person needs a private life. And the little ones in particular need even more of one: private. And a life. 

But what does that actually mean? The Dudendictionary spits out the following explanation for the word “private”: 

• own, individual, personal; (emphatic) very own 

• familiar, intimate, personal, casual, familiar, informal 

• unofficial, personal, in confidence, confidential; 

• not publicly accessible, not for everyone / not meant for public consumption, not public 

• non-state. 

Exactly. Private means not on official business, not for public consumption. But solely for oneself. Solely for these three brothers who are now spraying each other with water pistols and are whirling through the garden with loud screeches, having time off, simply being human, simply being themselves. 

When politicians talk about obligatory day care, it makes me angry. Does it imply that children are insufficiently supported at home? That they are lacking something? But should we not much more urgently think about how little we know as to what our children will really need to be able to do in the future? That we are not omniscient gods who can predict what your children should learn?

On the contrary, they know that for themselves. Not consciously, not if we ask them. But with their inner knowledge. And this knowledge is released in free, deep play. When they immerse themselves in free play they assimilate their life, they acquire for themselves what they need to be able to deal with the reality of their life: now. Today! 

In deep play they have long been able to do what we plan in minute detail for them. And they can also do all the things which we don’t plan for them but which they nevertheless need to enter into life with strength, self-confidence and resilience. Resilience means being able to deal with setbacks, difficulties and situations that make us ill, managing and not being destroyed by them. 

And what do children need for their play? Time! An afternoon such as this with nothing lying ahead. Nothing apart from the fact that at some point the evening might set in. When my oldest has visited friends (after school), he comes home and wants to play. “But it’s evening already and bedtime,” I say. Then he gets cross and says: “But I haven’t had any time.” 

The more deadlines, things that need to be done, doctor’s appointments and engagements interfere with this free time, the less play can grow. Free play needs emptiness, the void before play, the boredom. A child that rolls around on the floor with boredom will soon start to play – trust me. We just need to endure it. 

And they need space. It doesn’t have to be the size of a football pitch! Just a space in which they can be themselves. In which they can turn a chair upside down and build a cave with a blanket. In which there aren’t hundreds of vases which might fall over and no boxes with delicate sacred relics. A space which says: “Yes, here you may be a child.” That is why children are often so much more even-tempered outside and play more easily. For nature likes to say “Yes” to a child. More so than the interior spaces created by adults. Outside, a stick can also become a horse, a dragon, and, yes, a gun without someone saying: “Careful, that might break!” 

And they need security. When I watch our hens, four of them are always pecking for food and the cock keeps a look out. He guards them. That is an appropriate task for the cock. For a child it stops play. If thus the caregiver is absent, there is too much emotional insecurity, and the child is put in a position of constantly having to look after themselves (and ideally others present), they cannot play. For in order to be able to immerse oneself in a world of the imagination – which can be therapist, teacher, lifeline and support all at once – the child needs a world surrounding them which at least during this time is in balance. 

These are three factors which lead to “in-depth play” (Marie Luise Nüesch): time, space and attachment. And although I wrote that the world of play is therapist, teacher, lifeline and support, we adults have to keep our manipulating hands off “using” such play to beef up our support programmes with “educationally valuable play”. We have to take leave of the obsession of wanting to store up happiness “for later”. We cannot park it on a bench and return later to collect it. Our children are happy now – or not at all. 

All of us need a place in which we can be ourselves; in which we are fine as we are; which is not about performance; in which the Pisa study has no say; and in which – precisely for that reason – we are allowed to learn. 

About the author: Susanne Bregenzer is a former Waldorf pupil at the Rengoldshausen Waldorf School, a qualified childcare worker, mother on parental leave of three children and parent blogger at