Real, True, Honest to Goodness FREE Play

I took the photo above in 2009, out in the Sonian Forest in Brussels.  While I was living and teaching there, I took my class out to the forest one day per week, and that space became our classroom.  I did not make that connection right away, of course.  I thought of our weekly outing as just that - an outing.

On Friday mornings, we would gather together in the traditional classroom, use the restroom, and put on our wellies/hats/coats/mittens/etc.  We brought a pre-packed bag with a first aid kit, plastic bags, pens, clipboards, and paper.  We brought apple slices and string cheese.  I brought all the documentation tools I could carry; usually a digital camera and my bloggie.

In the early months of this habit, we headed for the playground.  The image above, of R swinging from the rafters, was in one of the playground structures.  I posted it on Facebook the other day after I came across it after so many years, and one of my colleagues from that school told me the structures are no longer there.  I was shocked - it was one of my favorite playgrounds on earth, with open ended lofts and structures and an amazing fallen tree right in the middle of the playground.  The slide was also popular with the children, and was a crucial element in one of my favorite videos.

In this video, O (a native Finnish speaker) plays with the sounds he makes through the slide.  He sings and he screams.  He truly plays.  The slide is there for going down, yes, but this playground was much more than that.

Looking back at the time spent on this playground, the curiosity that the children showed in the space reflected its open-ended nature.  They revisited favorite games every time we went to the forest, of course, but the structures (and lack thereof) left everything to the imagination.  Although I am sad to hear that this playground in the forest is gone, I will always be able to think of the forest days that we spent when we stopped visiting the playground.  We discovered a more engaging spot, perhaps by accident.  There were no structures in our new location.  Instead, we spent hours climbing up and down the same steep hill, going over the same giant tree roots, looking for bugs and bats and birds and water.

The spaces that you see in the photos above were consistently more engaging than that playground.  On the playground, eventually, there was boredom.  In my personal experience, it is not about giving children hundreds of choices of materials or limiting them to just a few, but rather the way in which choices are presented.  Out in the forest, the choices present themselves.  On a rainy day, the creek will be more salient to most of the children.  On a dry, hot day, they may play princesses, eating their apple slices under a tree.  Regardless of what children choose to play in this forest setting, play was always happening.

We had a routine in the final year I taught in Belgium.  We gathered together at the trailhead, not far from our classroom door.  Then we ran down the hill and around the curves of the path, and stopped at the bumpy tree.  Then the children would continue on to climb the leaf covered hill, and we would stay there for as long as we could.  That hill was exciting, scary, fun, and terrifying, depending on who you asked.  Children connected together, helping each other up and down the hill.  Some stayed at the top, some stayed at the bottom.  

In the open forest, there is no waiting for a turn on the slide, and no fighting over who gets to pretend to drive the big pirate ship structure.  There is no boredom because there is always something to do.  The children's imaginations were the only thing we needed when we went out there.  Even if we only had time to run down that path, up the leafy hill, and then go back to the classroom, I would have taken the time to zip all of those coats.

We do not need to look far when we want children to be engaged.  Perhaps the issue is that we look too hard for something that is incredibly simple.  When left to their own devices, three- to five-year-olds, like you see here, will create scenarios and stories and roles that we could never imagine.  Before even taking off down the trail, some of the children would begin making the play script:  "You be the mommy, and I'll be the sister.  When we get to the hill, I'm going to be bad.  You need to chase me so I can't escape."  Stories were drafted, corrected, started, interrupted, and continued for as long as we would stay in the forest.  These were some of my favorite moments spent with children, watching them imagine, step back into reality to change or discuss something with their peers, and then jump back into the play with an agreed-upon script or boundary.  Claire Golomb states,

It is quite remarkable how well the preschooler is able to step out of the make-believe play-frame to negotiate with the actors, to sketch and narrate the pretend theme, to act as a stage manager and assign roles, and to interpret the ongoing action to the audience.
— The Creation of Imaginary Worlds, 2011

So, no matter where children are, they are working hard at play.  Staying up late under the covers in a narrative by themselves, fighting a water bottle with a stick in the backyard, or imagining they need to be rescued from the top of the leafy hill - children's free play is the real good stuff.  They are working much harder and making many more connections than when they are following the exact directions to make a specific toy work in a specific way.  

There is room for all kinds of learning in childhood and beyond, but the general view on free play is that it is an unproductive use of time.  I hope that we can see a shift in that conversation soon, especially as we choose how children will spend their time in state and federally funded preschools.