Does anyone have time, these days, for free play? Adults, children, and everyone in between seem to be scheduled from the moment their alarm rings in the morning to the moment they finally get into bed for the night. Educators and child care providers seem to think that parents prefer to have their children actively engaged in structured activities at all times. Talking to parents, however, I’ve found them incredibly grateful for safe spaces for their kids to freely explore and play actively outdoors. Maybe it’s the lack of such places in today’s neighborhoods that has eliminated free play in youth’s days.
Within this context, I feel extremely lucky. My job is to facilitate outdoor learning, exploration, and active play in the small natural spaces scattered (often hidden) in our intensely dense city. Yes, our goals are to facilitate learning in the areas of biology, ecology, and nutrition. Yes, I can prove that we meet multiple standards in every hour of programming. If, however, we go outside to observe and learn about pollination but end up getting distracted by a spider catching a fly in its web, it’s no problem! What a great opportunity to learn about food chains, predators and prey, and our garden ecosystem. It’s this kind of flexibility that is needed to truly take advantage of all of the learning experience that arise when spending free time in outdoor natural spaces.
Though exhausting, leading the “Spring into Action!” April Vacation Program re-invigorated my motivation to push for more outdoor and natural play options in the city. During camp, free play could easily be integrated into our day because of our setting and daily structure. We were at the Growing Center so unstructured time led to experiences like exploring around the pond, finding worms in the compost pile, watering flowers and freshly planted vegetable seeds, or climbing a tree. Our answer to cold temperatures: integrate more running games into our day and enjoy a collectively-cooked hot meal for lunch. Parents were excited and grateful to report that their children fell asleep early and ate all their dinners each night after camp.
Today at our “Dig Spring!” Garden Club, half of us were excited to plant the carrot and lettuce seeds I’d brought. The other half just wanted to run back and forth across the grassy strip of land and run up and down the stairs to the school. My immediate reaction was to stop the running and organize everyone in the planting efforts. I quickly questioned myself. Had we all learned how to plant seeds already? Yes! Had all students participated in pea planting before vacation? Yes! Do student get to run around enough? No! Have these first and second graders been sitting all day listening to adults tell them things? Yes! Our runners and seed planters co-existed in our garden space for 20 minutes, totally engaged in an activity of choice, with some drifting from running to planting and back again. The added bonus: I became the hero for allowing the students to do what they preferred, everyone had a fun day, everyone was physically tired by the end of our hour, and when asked, everyone could name at least three of the types of vegetables we’d planted in the garden this spring. We also learned a cool fact to tell our friends: by playing actively outside, we were actually helping the environment. Our lights and TV weren’t using electricity and we were making ourselves healthier by staying active!