Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Innocence of Natural Play: Creating Unstructured Play Environments

Weʼre wired to play and have fun, arenʼt we?

[photo credit: miller family big trip. blogspot]

Iʼve seen movies of bears wrestling with each other, monkeys playing and laughing together, squirrels chasing each other in trees, and cats batting dangling string, rolling and chasing balls, and pouncing on wind-up mice.
And us? Donʼt we do the same kinds of things, and sometimes go to great lengths to take a break from routines and have fun?

All of us are busy, but we do look for moments here and there to grab a coffee, see a movie, go out for dinner, take a drive, chat with a friend, or watch TV.

And boy, does it feel luxurious when we actually have time to unwind and hike, or fish, or garden, or swim, or paint, or read, or pursue our hobby....or just take a long, wonderful, quiet nap in the middle of the day. Anything that doesnʼt involve a schedule or an obligation or meeting a deadline is just plain precious to us.

Unstructured, unscheduled, free time. There is absolutely nothing like it.

But our lives are so full of family and work obligations, that finding that kind of time for ourselves is really difficult and, for me (and you, too, perhaps), it almost becomes an obsession.

What happened to the days of our youths when all we ever thought about was play? Maybe itʼs too long in the past to be certain, but when I was eight, I remember endless days. Hours and hours playing trucks and cars in my friendʼs dirt driveway, playing in the hilly field by my house, playing with wooden bricks my dad made from a 2x4, climbing trees, and making forts and tree houses in the woods.

Hours! And you probably did similar things, too!

Some time ago, we developed an interactive presentation about Natural Playgrounds, and one of our exercises asks people to tell us about the favorite things they did outside when they were 8 or 10 years old.
The answers are fun: climbing trees, making forts, making mud pies, climbing rocks, digging in the sand, running through tall grass, looking for bugs, playing in the water, walking in the woods, jumping in leaves, making sand castles, making snow angels.... [now would be the perfect time to get outside and make snow angels, right?]

[photo credit: the curious me.com]

So hereʼs the importance of these memories: all of the play activities, every single one of them, was unstructured. As kids, these adults made up their own rules, their own actions, made discoveries, learned how to do things on their own, took risks, solved problems, got satisfaction, laughed, had fun, felt successful -- all because they were left on their own to play in an environment that encouraged imagination and exploration.

Unstructured, free play. Thatʼs what made the memories indelible.

Contrast that with play experienced by most children today. Inside a fenced playground usually filled with woodchips and nothing different or exciting day after day, they find themselves bored. Thereʼs no place to explore, no discoveries to make, no imagination required, no risks to take, no nature to watch...everythingʼs the same, same, same every time they come on the playground.

But thatʼs not all. Over the past 40 years, thereʼs been a 50% drop in unstructured outdoor activities, structured sports have doubled, homework has more than tripled, kids spend more than 30 hours a week with electronic entertainment, recess has been reduced or eliminated in 40% of US elementary schools (some schools are even being built without playgrounds), and parents continue to fully book their childrenʼs free time with organized activities like sports, swimming, archery, computer camps, choir practice, and dance lessons.

We're are quickly approaching the end to this year, whirling fiercely toward 2015. Make it your mission to get you, your family, your children, your neighbor's children - outside. On a whim, collect your family and go for a hike or take a walk around the block and see all the holiday decorations. Do something spontaneous. Get outside. Make a few memories.

[photo credit: flotsamofthemind.com]


Pyle, R (2002) Eden in a vacant lot: special places, species, and kids in the neighborhood of life.

Kellert, S (2002). Experiencing nature: affective, cognitive, and evaluative development in children

Healy, J (1990) "Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It."

Ron King is president of the Natural Playgrounds company headquartered in Concord New Hampshire. The company designs and constructs Natural Playgrounds all over the US and can be reached through the web at www.NaturalPlaygrounds.com, by e-mail at info@NaturalPlaygrounds.com, or by toll-free phone 888-290-8405. Their website is full of research, pictures, fundraising sources, and information about Natural Playgrounds. Their store carries many of the items mentioned in the article.

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