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Free Play

Growing up, I lived in Small Town, USA where everyone knew each other, where my schools were no more than 3 blocks away from home, and my favourite place, the Woodstock Municipal Pool, was a quick bike ride away.

When I was eight years old, I received an odometer for my bike.  One of the first things I measured was the distance between my driveway and the bike rack at the pool. If I followed a direct route, it was EXACTLY one mile.

I rode my bike to the pool almost every day between June and August that summer, sometimes twice in a day because of morning swim practice.  Contrary to the principles of modern parenting, I took these bike rides to the park alone most of the time.  So did my friends.

What I encountered between home and the pool is somewhat interesting.  Because the sidewalk ended early on my side of the street, I almost always chose to cross the street right at my driveway; a busy street as it was the thoroughfare between downtown and the highway.

A little further down the street, there was a big hill, the type that if you didn’t get enough momentum started before you got to the hill, you’d be left to two foot it part of the way.  This meant leaving the house and riding at speed right away.

Photo Credit: Googlemaps

Photo Credit: Googlemaps

Once at the top of the hill, there would be a few houses, and then you would pass by a huge blue/grey water tower.  At the bottom of the tower was a large hole, and I nearly always stopped there to catch my breath, shout in the hole, hear the echo, chuckle and move on.  Apparently I was easily amused.

For a few hundred yards, it was downhill and uphill again and you could make it through both with very little peddle power.

At the top of the next hill, you would find yourself between two cemeteries, Calvary and Oakland.  I often stopped there to look around. Each cemetery had its unique features.  I always liked Oakland better.  It was full of really ornate old headstones and down closer to the entrance of the park, there was a small mausoleum.  I almost always stopped at the mausoleum too.  It was dug into the side of the hill, almost like a bunker.  It was like a place lost in time, no one ever seemed to go in, no one ever seemed to go out, but the lawn was always mowed around it.

At this point, you turned left and followed the sidewalk through City Park.  The park road was always busy with cars driven by teenagers who had their windows open and radios blasting, so it was safest to stay on the sidewalk.  This part of the path was relatively easy to get through, except at the end where there was another one of those hills that required a full-out sprint to make it without having to two foot the end.  A quick turn left and there were the bike racks.

The Woodstock Municipal Pool was really something in the 1970s.  No town with 10,000 people had a pool like that one.  It had a full six lane 25 yard competitive swimming area, along with both a 1 and 3 meter diving board.  There was also an equivalent area of wading pool with water three or four feet deep.  The Woodstock Dolphins swim team was a dynasty; producing more champions per capita than other places around northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin.  That pool was a destination to say the least.

Upon arriving at the pool, I would promptly show my pass (a small rectangular piece of fabric sewn on my suit) and was given a basket and off I went to change and jump in the pool.

Again, I want to mention that I was eight years old.  I rode my bike unaccompanied to the pool.  I met my friends there, who also rode their bikes to the pool.  We would arrive for open swim at 1:00, and stay all afternoon.  When we were hungry, we’d walk over the concession stand, slap down $.25, and enjoy a frozen Charleston Chew.    I typically always left around 5:00, in order to meet my mom at home at 5:30.  I’d do it again the next day, and the next and the next. . .

While at the pool, we perfected handstands and inward dives and our suntans.  We set up mini competitions.  If we were bored with swimming we might walk down to the playground and fool around on the equipment.  We played in the field, slid down the toboggan slide, we went fishing at the pond below the pool, and were often filthy at night.

Like Charlie Brown, we didn’t need parents, and our parents didn’t seem to need us.

I wish the opportunity to have this lifestyle on every child in existence today, mostly for this reason. . .we learned to adapt, we learned to free play, and from the independence we learned life skills that are hard to come by in a well-supervised life.

I know that the reality is that very few children get this opportunity, mostly because parents who subscribe to this philosophy run the risk of going to jail.  I also recognize that the world is a different place.

While I reminisce though, as an HR professional I want you think about the value of free play, what creativity brings when you really have no agenda other than to have fun and pass the time, where there is no specific outcome.  Why can’t we have more of this environment at work? It is true that some good inventions come from the rigour of committing to do something every day and to set end goals.  But sometimes great things happen when you’re just fooling around passing time.  Satisfaction and achievement come from being able to say “I figured that out all by myself”.

We in HR spend a lot of time writing procedures and rules to ensure that things are consistent; that time is not lost for others who are trying to get to the end. How much more satisfaction or new things might be created if we let people figure out more of what’s what if we let them use their own devices to get to those things?

Bonni Titgemeyer CEBS, SPHR, CHRL, CMS, SHRM-SCP is the Managing Director of The Employers’ Choice Inc. and founder of The EO List blog.  She is a well-known entity in the total compensation and organizational effectiveness fields, and has highly-sought after experience in the global arena.  


  1. Hi Bonni!
    How are you? I hope things are going well and you are taking time out for some “free play.” I loved reading your article. It’s great that you had such a wonderful childhood and you’re parents gave you the freedom to do go biking to your local pool on your own. I do miss the 1970’s because my parents gave my brother and me a lot of “free play” time on our own.

    I also agree that it’s important for HR professionals to embrace “free play.” I’m in between career successes and I enjoy biking in the park, knitting and doing yoga/tai chi at GoodLife Fitness. It really helps free up my mind and I come up with some cool networking ideas that help me with my job search.

    My husband and I encourage our son Peyton to have “free play.” He’s 7 years old and he enjoys playing marbles, making things using markers, card board and white paper and we gradually give him more time to be independent and adventurous (in steps) to build his creativity, adaptability and confidence.

    Thank you for your blog Bonni.

    Have a wonderful day and take care!

    Caren Sexton

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