The value of self directed play

I’m taking a course on the human nature connection and I thought I would publish some of the reflection papers that I’ve been writing.  These are a bit more academic than what I normally post, but I thought they were worth sharing.

Last summer, I watched as my five year-old son climbed high in the branches of the only climbable tree in our local park.  There is a built playground in the park, but he has been drawn to this tree for the past two summers and has finally learned how to climb it.  After he had been playing in the tree for about an hour, a local grandparent brought her grandkids to the park and started organizing the kids in to games.  Within ten minutes, my son asked to go home.  Play, organized by adults, wasn’t as much fun as using his imagination.

This shouldn’t have surprised me; children are often more responsive to self-directed play than they are to structured programming. It’s worth noting that there were a number of other reasons why her type of play wasn’t as fun.  My son had picked a part of the park that matched the preferences of children his age.  He had shelter under a tree and the freedom to explore within that shelter but he was also able to see me outside of that area.  By choosing this area to play, he was following the preferences that evolution has created in his brain (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002).  In the little thicket that he had chosen to play in, he was safe from weather and predators.  He was able to see me in case he needed help and he was exploring nature on his own terms in a place where he felt safe.  Children have always played in places like this and it would have been extraordinary for him to have done any differently (Wilson, 1993).

Child in tree

What is extraordinary is the reaction that humans have taken as we have moved from a rural to a primarily urbanized society.  Not only have we over programmed our children, reducing the chances that they will be able to explore nature on their own terms, we have begun the process of actively discouraging play.  In many jurisdictions, children are not allowed to play in the trees or build forts out of a misguided fear of liability (Louv, 2005).  We have scheduled structured activities for our children at the cost of virtually any unstructured free time (Honoré, 2008) and we have declared that a simple trip without direct parental supervision by a nine year old qualifies as child neglect (Skenazy, 2010).  We have made a crucial error in our evaluation of childhood; we have decided that children need to be protected by adults and, if we can’t protect them directly, they will be safer indoors.

Furthermore, as a result of our disconnection with nature, we have tried to replace actual nature with television documentaries and photos.  We have created an industry around programs for children that feature strong nature themes and lessons.  While these programs have much to teach young people about the world around them, studies have shown that the sort of “virtual nature” does not have the same impact as actual nature (Kahn, 2012).

As educators, we need to pay attention to these lessons and act accordingly.  We know that a vital skill for the next generation will be the ability to adapt to situations as they arise (Henderson, 2008).  As such, we should be encouraging behaviors that encourage creativity.  One way to do so is encouraging play in the outdoors and it encourages creativity, stress reduction and an increase in self-esteem (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002).  We need to understand that purchasing the latest colourful post and platform playground from a catalogue may actually discourage play in the outdoors.   Recent research has found that a child who is left to his or her own devices in a natural environment will play for an average of one hour and eight minutes.  That number drops dramatically to eighteen minutes when a standard playground is introduced (Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, 2012).  As we design spaces for children to play in, we need to be very careful that we do not destroy the very things that will encourage unstructured play.

I do not believe that modern society has eradicated the connection between children and nature.  Children have an innate connection and desire to interact with nature (Wilson, 1993).  We need to create and encourage opportunities for young people to increase their connection with this natural world.  Perhaps the best measure for any of our decisions is the measure proposed by Kahn for the use of technology: by doing something, will people get outdoors more than if we had done nothing (Kahn, 2012)?  If we cannot meet that measure, we must carefully reconsider our actions.

Bibliography

Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Standing Committee on the environment and sustainable development. (2012). Evidence. Meeting 47, October 22nd. 41st Parliament, 1st Session. Available: http://www.parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Language=E&Mode=1&DocId=5773148&File=0

Heerwagen, J. H., & Orians, G. H. (2002). The ecological world of children. In P. H. Kahn & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and Nature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Henderson, J. (2008). Developing students’ creative skills for 21st century success. Education Update, 50(12), Retrieved from http://www.ascd.org/publications/newsletters/education-update/dec08/vol50/num12/Developing-Students’-Creative-Skills-for-21st-Century-Success.aspx

Honoré, C. (2008). Under Pressure: Rescuing childhood from the culture of hyper-parenting. Toronto, Ontario: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Kahn, P. H. (2012). Wild-technology. Ecopsychology, 4(3), 237-243. doi: 10.1089/eco.2012.0004

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the wood: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. (1st ed.). Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Alqonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Skenazy, L. (2010). Free range kids. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, E. O. (1993). Biophilia and the conservation ethic. In S. R. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The biophilia hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: