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Free, unstructured playtime gives kids a chance to discover their interests and tap into their creativity. It’s a crucial element for building resilience in children, an attribute they’ll need in order to become happy, productive adults. That’s Kenneth Ginsburg’s thesis and the core of his book Building Resilience in Children and Teens.

Ginsburg, a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who also works with homeless children, has spent a lot of time trying to help young people build tools they’ll need to succeed — even when trauma has marred early lives.

But the word “success” can be loaded, often carrying different connotations. To Ginsburg, a successful child is one who finds something he loves to do, is generous, empathetic and compassionate, committed to repairing the world, shows grit and the ability to collaborate, creativity and can take constructive criticism. These are what will serve young people as they move into the world on their own.

“So many of the things that we care about are completely learned through the creative process,” Ginsberg said at an event hosted by the Bay Area Discovery Museum. When kids are allowed free time to play, they learn how to work in groups, negotiate, share, self-advocate, and make decisions.

Ginsburg cautions parents that putting too much pressure on children’s academics might have negative effects in the long term. The way he frames parents’ ultimate goals: Raise healthy, wise 35-year-olds. Parenting with long-term vision helps keep the little things in perspective.

[RELATED READING: Are We Wringing the Creativity Out of Kids?]

“All the best ideas haven’t been thought of yet. If you have people who are only thinking about fitting in the box, then you aren’t going to get ideas outside the box,” Ginsburg said. Parents and educators shouldn’t be trying to shape children into cogs for an economy that hasn’t figured out what kind of machine it will be in 20 years.

Instead, one of the most important skills a parent can foster in children is resilience, which he says can be fostered through creativity. Ginsburg relies on the “Seven C’s of Resilience” as a road map for helping students to find their inner grit.

7 C’s of Resilience

  1. COMPETENCE: Young people need to be recognized when they’re doing something right and to be given opportunities to develop specific skills.
  2. CONFIDENCE: Confidence comes from building real skills that parents and educators can teach and nurture. Confidence can be easily undermined, but also bolstered by tasks that push learners without making the goal feel unachievable.
  3. CONNECTION: Being part of a community helps kids know they aren’t alone if they struggle and that they can develop creative solutions to problems.
  4. CHARACTER. Kids need an understanding of right and what wrong and the capacity to follow a moral compass. That will allow them see that they cannot be put down.
  5. CONTRIBUTION: The experience of offering their own service makes it easier for young people to ask for help when they need it. Once kids understand how good it can feel to give to others, it becomes easier to ask for that same support when it’s needed. And being willing to ask for help is a big part of being resilient.
  6. COPING: Kids need to learn mechanisms to manage their stress by learning methods to both engage and disengage at times. Some strategies for doing this include breaking down seemingly insurmountable problems into smaller, achievable pieces, avoiding things that trigger extreme anxiety, and just letting some things go. After all, resilience is about conserving energy to fit the long game and kids need to know realistically what they can affect and what should be let go.
  7. CONTROL: In order to truly be resilient a child need to believe that she has control over her world. Feeling secure helps engender control, which is why kids test limits.

Creativity plays an integral part of developing these seven skill sets. “Play is exactly about learning to control your environment, to figure things out,” he said. “Play is integral to being able to build resilience.” When kids play, they make mistakes and learn how to recover. It’s also a unique time for parents to observe their children and offer gentle guidance about skill development or how to share.

Keeping children on rigid, academically driven schedules denies them the space for some of the real self-learning that will see them through unexpected challenges, the ones that aren’t on the test.


How Free Play Can Define Kids’ Success 8 May,2014Katrina Schwartz

  • Thanks for this piece. Love how the “7 C’s of Resilience” spell out the importance of play, a philosophy that we at Sudbury Valley School share.

    Our students have total freedom to play, explore, learn and grow by following their passions, whether that means art, algebra or a tadpole-hunting expedition. One of our founders, Daniel Greenberg, wrote about “Play” in the Sudbury Valley Press publication, “Worlds In Creation.” The essay is available here:

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  • Michelle Vajgrt

    Hi, I’m Michelle Vajgrt, a student in Dr. Strange’s EDM 310 class at the University of South Alabama. Our class focuses on technology in the classroom and how blogs can be used to our advantage. My blog site is

    I absolutely loved your post. It reminded me a lot about an assignment we did recently. We watched the video on the link at the bottom of my comment. This man talks about how creativity is just as important as the academics.

    I hope to be able to use your last sentence as a guide in becoming a teacher. It’s about time that educators begin to realize not everything can be taught, sometimes it has to be experienced. Self learning is a valuable teacher and children should have more opportunities for this.

  • C Davis

    This article is excellent in combining school, community, and creativity. The combination of these 3 is important to nurture for students. We must not discount a student’s creativity in the mix of his learning. The creative part is how change is made on the world.

  • We cannot agree more with this article! Thank you!

    As an educational publishing company specialized in learning how to write, we are always searching for the best way to offer children the support the need while letting them free to explore. We also believe the things you discover by yourself on a playful manner stick with you the longest. That is why we do our best to let children play. By example, our app LetterSchool guides the kids by providing subtle visual and auditory feedback when it detects that they need a hand. That way, young players are completely free to explore the mysterious world of letters, acquiring letter and number fluency in their own, intuitive way. The nicest compliment we get is to hear that a child has learned how to write without even noticing it’s quite a difficult.

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  • Cindy

    As a parent of a 3 1/2 year old, I feel so much pressure in trying to raise him the “right way” and I’m not sure where that comes from, but I love that Dr. Ginburg tells us to “Raise healthy, wise 35-year-olds.” That’s about my age and it puts things into perspective, helps me relax and reminds me that embracing what’s beautiful in childhood (free-play, exploration and learning are connected to all the “C’s” mentioned above) is what is most important. Thank you for helping me understand parenthood a bit more.

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  • mike

    I’ve been a big proponent for imaginative play for kids. It’s so crucial for them to allow the creative thought and build the skills that will help them. It’s something I have worked hard to encourage with my kids and yes even join in now and then. This is part of what guided us to create the website to offer fairy wings and little girls dress up items.
    The idea came when our little girl was just 1 year old or so and working quite effectively at wrapping her daddy around her little finger. She has proven to be a very special spirit spending hours singing and playing even when she is alone. What a joy it is to be a parent.

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  • jhassel

    Other than alliteration, why would you say “7 C’s” when you wrap the essay up by emphasizing that creativity, an 8th C, is integral to developing the other 7?

  • Nancy

    I could not agree more that resilience is an important characteristic to develop, it is what helps us through the difficulties all lives encounter at some point.The importance of children freely choosing and learning self-control is critical to developing resilience, Once upon a time, kindergarten was about children moving about in an enriched environment and choosing freely what they wanted to do within that environment – blocks, dolls, dress-up costumes, sand tables, clay were all set out with no directions and no expectation of how much time a child could spend there, or what they would “accomplish” in their time with those activities. When my first child went to kindergarten 25 years ago, he brought home dittoes (every Friday) of what letters he had copied and collages of shapes that the teacher’s aide had held up a model and told the children “This is what yours should look like when it’s done.” Now there are preschools which teach this same structured way. Play time has been taken over by sports, which are far too structured and complex – and competitive! – to be considered relaxing and creative. Children need to learn how to use their own time and engage with materials in their own ways in order to become creative and confident, and they need a routine which includes free time for them to fill as they wish.

  • Mary

    Plenty of unconditional love (with lots of affection) plus respectfully dleivered and consistent discipline builds a strong, resilient child. (39 yr experienced pediatric therapist and mom)

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  • MikeSadofsky

    Free Play and the freedom to play are integral to the philosophy and practice at Sudbury Valley School. Observation of the students and graduates (over now, nearly 50 years) are totally consistent with what I read here. Please keep writing about these and related ideas.

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Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She’s worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She’s a staff writer for KQED’s education blog MindShift.

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