Free Play

When I heard the theme of this months Fernie Fix was PLAY, I was ecstatic. As a mother of three young children, and the founder of an organisation that values play as an essential part of learning, I am surrounded by “PLAY.” My children are fortunate to be spending most of their waking hours in rich learning environments that promote play.

Playing can be initiated and happen in many ways. As an educator, my teaching journey has led me to explore the deeper aspects and benefits of child-lead learning, much of which happens through play. It can be very difficult for adults to be patient, step back and observe; however, uninterrupted play initiated by children serves their future selves through a variety of ways. This type of play fosters creativity, confidence, problem solving, independence and much more.

In our house we have consciously chosen to have open-ended toys that promote creative play such as wooden blocks, Lego, play food, dress up clothes and playdough. This is contrary to purpose-built toys that are used by children in one specific way. We also provide our children with ample time engaging in outdoor play with a conscious effort to not be “helicopter parents.” I’ve attended a Risky Play workshop where I learned about the benefits of allowing children to engage in behaviour that has inherent risk. Climbing trees, jumping over rocks, navigating steep banks could all end with bumps and bruises. But those activities also foster the ability to make decisions, gain confidence and assess their own abilities. Of course, there is a limit where the consequences are no longer worth the benefits, and this is where parents and adults always have a duty to care for little ones.

The word “play” can be interpreted differently, but it simply means to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose. It’s important to acknowledge that just because an activity is without purpose does not mean it is without benefit. As an adult I was drawn to the small-town mountain lifestyle where play seemed to be an integral part of life. Child psychologist and author David Elkind reminds us that “play is not a luxury but rather a crucial dynamic of healthy, physical, intellectual and social-emotional development at all age levels.” Whether it’s floating down the river, hiking, biking or going for a ski, it’s important to demonstrate to my kids that I value recreation and play. 

In 2016, myself and a colleague started running an outdoor play-based program for children called Forest School. Free play is at the core of this program. “Free play” meaning the children agree on the activity, where it will be played, how it will be played, what will happen and how to deal with challenges. During Forest School I witness the children’s creativity and cognitive skills develop as they spend hours engaging in outdoor free play. As a trained Forest School Facilitator, it is my job to observe and given children space and time to explore their surroundings through play without constant adult intervention.

Old or young, play is important for everyone. I leave you with one tip of advice, if you are unsure of how to bring more play into your day, do something so engaging you loose track of time that has no definitive end goal.