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Interview with Iben Sandahl: Play – The Danish Way

It is a beautiful sunny day in August and I am going to meet bestselling author Iben Sandahl for cafe hygge and an interview about her new book Play – The Danish Way. Excited to finally meet one of the two authors behind The Danish Way of Parenting I show up early at Cafe Mig og Annie in Lyngby, Denmark. Before I even begin to get nervous if she has forgotten about me, I see her arrive outside right on time. Even though I have never met her before I just know it is her. There is something radiant about her – the way she carries herself. She is stylish and beautiful yet relaxed and friendly and I immediately feel comfortable knowing that this is going to be a pleasant and interesting interview.

We find a table outside in the late-summer sun. While we warm up on big cups of cafe latte and green tea we start talking. Mostly about me. Iben is so engaging and warm that I almost forget that we are also here to talk about her and her new book Play – The Danish Way. So we agree to get started…

Me: What motivated you to write about free play?
Iben looks excited, then takes a deep breath and thinks carefully before she answers…

Iben: My deepest motivation is that I have a great wish that children should feel comfortable and have great foundations to unfold in a way that is giving and fruitful to them. I get claustrophobia when people are put in boxes and from demands that diminish diversity, when children aren’t allowed to flourish as who they are.

Me: Why is free play important?

Iben: I am a big advocate for free play and I think there is a danger of breaking the concept of free play into something that is a goal for adults, into something that is governed by a goal the adults have set. Play is not play if there is an agenda – when adults have decided that children should achieve or learn something specific through play.
Through free play children learn to cooperate, negotiate – and they do it all by themselves! Adult interference takes away the free choice. They learn about life through free play. Play can move them into a new developmental milestole they are ready for. Motivated by their own free will they take the next step in a direction they are ready for. In this way they mature. For example by seeing what other children can do, they can get a desire to learn how to do the same thing.

Me: Speaking of adult interference, I have a very hard time not interfering to protect my children i.e. on the playground. Is it really so harmful to interfere if you want to protect them?

Iben: When an adult warns and constantly reminds them of dangers and to be careful the adult harms the children’s confidence. The adult reminds them of a risk factor they have not considered themselves and which they suddenly have to considerate and they can become insecure. This gives them a feeling of not mastering what they are doing and that the adult doesn’t think they can do it. In this way you risk that they become someone who gives up instead of someone who conquers. There is nothing as great as the feeling of victory and of mastering something new. When you have done something you were not completely sure you could do and then do it. This strengthens the self esteem. If adults often warn and make them insecure they can damage children’s self esteem. Instead it is much better to support them if they need a hand and make them believe they are in control.

Me: How much time a day do children need for free play?

Iben: You cannot put time on it. It is very individual how much free play a child needs. There are also many facets of free play. Free play is time to absorb experiences from the day. So if a lot has happened one day, they may need more time for free play.
Personally, I give my daughters my full attention for about fifteen to thirty minutes after they come home from school. That’s all they need, but it varies of course. When they were little it was fifteen minutes of tumble time where they usually chose to tumble around on the floor with me (often on me), as older children it can be talking while having an afternoon snack together. When they have filled up their need for attention, they can do what they want (free play). It differs a lot what they need but it is a time they can fill up themselves however they want.

Me: When my daughter says she is bored as soon as I tell her to play alone, could it be because she is a highly social person and doesn’t need alone time?

Iben: As a stay-at-home mom or a working mom you need to be careful not to become a maid. It is healthy for the children to see that their mom also takes time to do something nice for herself and has important things to do. The mother is a rolemodel to them. Besides, it is good for children to learn to take initiative to something instead of always needing adults’ help and ideas. It can be a good idea to set a manageable time frame for them which they must fill out themselves. A no-disturb time. A mom-time. 15-30 minutes is a manageable time frame for the very small children, older children can handle up to one hour. If they come and tell you they are hungry, you can tell them they can have a sandwich but that now we will make it together so you avoid the service role. You can make it fun and into a shared project by explaining to them that mom needs mom-time and now we will go out and buy a timer together so we will know when it has been half an hour. It is a good idea to include the child and do it together.

Me: Until which age do children need free play? When are you too old for free play?

Iben: To that I will say never. Free play changes form with age but never stops. Adults also need time and to relax. Free play starts with the baby on its tummy by itself, exploring the world from there and later rolls and tumbles around. For preschool children play is very physical and is about testing limits. For older children, about 12-13 years old, play is more about immersion. It changes form and they can immerse themselves in an interest just because it is fun without a real goal and without being forced.
For adults free play is a free space i.e. to do exercise or a hobby. Something where the brain can relax and you can do something that makes you happy.
It is really good to show children that you can be silly. To be crazy. To be “not perfect.” When my children were younger we sometimes made a pact that we shouldn’t use napkins, while we were eating homemade burgers. We ended up having sauces all over our faces and we had so much fun. Doing what is not expected once in a while makes us human. We have also had a game where you walk through the living room in silly ways. Children love when you are crazy and silly. In this way you show them that you can be at their level and share their sense of humor – it connects. Just as long as you don’t do it all the time of course 😉

Me: Can you explain how free play leads to lower stress, more resilience, success and happiness?

Iben: Free play means that you, with your own free will, are allowed to explore, resolve tasks and gather information that you need. In this way your actions make sense to you and you create your own identity because you know that you can do something. You can trust yourself because you know that you can solve tasks and handle challenges on your own. Therefore you do not get stressed and will have more resilience when life later on offers challenges and new situations. I often say that you collect beads for a necklace which means that you create your own identity and thereby meaning with life. Self esteem is essential when you meet challenges. It gives you an increased sense of happiness. You believe in what you can do. When you focus on the process you feel more content instead of just achieving a goal and then hurry on to the next goal.

Me: How can we inspire children to more free play?

Iben: Parents can take a look inside first. Ask yourself which values you wish to pass on? Think of good memories from your own childhood and think about how to give this to your children. For example I have very fond memories of a summerhouse on the West Coast in Denmark where we were a group of children who would play around freely in nature.
You can create nice spaces for children to enjoy and play in. Spaces that invite children to use them. A corner with a mattress where they can lay down and daydream. A jumping or tumbling room full of pillows. You can put out crayons etc. so children can draw when they want to. Make spaces with facilities which children can grab and use if and when they want to.
And you can also set off half an hour to one hour a day for “own time” and tell them that they can use this time however they want. The only rule is that no one can disturb each other.

Me: What can nature give to free play?

Iben: Everything! You can find it all in nature. Nature inspires free play. Sticks, rocks, dirt – all of it…

Iben agrees that it is very hard to learn Danish parenting when you are not from Denmark. You have to learn a whole new way of thinking but she believes that it is possible. It is the same thing with the concept of hygge – it just takes time and effort to learn. In fact, Iben Sandahl and co-author of The Danish Way of Parenting, Jessica Alexander, were the first to introduce and conceptualize hygge to the world!
If you feel like you could use some more Iben Sandahl input and guidance in your life she is available for private family counseling on Skype all over the world! In fact, she tells me, she has very good experiences with counseling on Skype. She also travels the world giving lectures based on her books The Danish Way of Parenting and Play – The Danish Way. You can find her contact information and read more about her work on her website

I leave the cafe renewed and energized. Especially the idea about “own time” sounds appealing to me. And to create spaces that invite children to free play with things they can use when they want to. I finally understand that it is all about free will and learning to do things and explore on your own. This is so important for children as well as adults. Everything is easier when it is governed by our own free will. When we do something because we like it, and have fun doing it, our learning becomes so much better and faster. So why not get as much free play into our children’s lives as possible – I feel assured that this is the way to develop and learn in the best, happiest and healthiest way.




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