Working with kids in a diversity of settings, I’ve developed a deep appreciation of the importance of play.
I have been working with elementary students since graduating college. Two years ago I moved from urban schools to a rural one. This past fall, pre-schoolers were added to my mix at work. My new job was a shift in another way – I moved from public school settings to a Waldorf school. Each transition has deepened my belief in the importance of play. Especially outdoor play.
Search “Play” and “Child Development” and you’ll see a never-ending list of scholarly articles highlighting the importance of play for children. In fact, it seems crucial for healthy mental, social, and physical development. So why is recess time getting cut? Why are we filling kids’ afternoons with structured adult-led activities? Why are we signing young children up for organized sports? Luckily, some parents, schools, and neighborhoods are starting to realize how important unstructured and outdoor play is for our children.
At our Waldorf school, we try to create an atmosphere that promotes joy, wonder, and reverence in students. Free creative play and exploration of the social and natural world is key in the positive development of our young students. The numerous ways simple natural materials like stumps, sticks, mud, water, sand, and leaves can be used by a group of children never ceases to amaze me. At the same time, however, it makes sense. Think about how many different things a basket of polished rocks, dried corn cobs, or a curved stick could become in imaginative children’s play. A toy airplane, on the other hand, will probably always end up being used as an airplane. For adults, this makes facilitating imaginative play easy: simple things found in nature make some of the best toys! Unstructured time, without all sorts of adult-driven activities, helps kids grow into independent and creative adults.
Peter Gray wrote a recent article in the The Independent titled Give childhood back to children: if we want our offspring to have happy, productive and moral lives, we must allow more time for play, not less. Gray makes the importance of play clear. Creativity, getting along with others, teamwork, impulse control, control over emotions like fear and anger, and independence are all qualities that are crucial for success in today’s world. Without regular opportunities for free play, Gray argues, children do not have the opportunity to develop these skills.
Do you work with students, or have children of your own? Consider simplifying your schedule and leaving more time for free play! Children who complain of boredom will soon find ways to entertain themselves, leaving you with more time for that long “to do” list. Think of chores or work you can do on the periphery, keeping an eye on your children without interfering in their imaginary world.
There are numerous resources available for parents and educators wanting to spend more time outside with children. The Children and Nature Network is one of my favorites. Their mission is to create a world where every child can play, learn and grow in nature. They have practical resources for families and a library of research available for those interested in learning about the health benefits of spending time in nature. Don’t forget, adults also benefit from free time outside to relax, de-stress, and get moving!