As a teacher, I’ve long understood its importance, but as a teacher-turned-parent of a young child, I’ve come to view true play as vital for child development.
Perhaps you’re like me and have watched in awe as your child figured out how to reach something high or how to climb up all by herself. You’ve smiled when she kissed her baby dolls goodnight and said the same things you say to her before bed. You’ve been amazed that she declared an object to be a different object—using a stick as a phone, for example. You’ve laughed when she tried to fool you by saying she was dad.
Play is how children figure out the world and themselves. It’s how they learn to navigate social situations and develop empathy. They learn to problem-solve and to create. They hone executive functioning skills and sensory integration. They improve muscle tone, and they become aware of their bodies in space.
For most adults, play is what we do when we aren’t working. For children, play IS the work itself. Maria Montessori said it best: “Play is the work of the child.”
Boundaries of “Play” Constructed by Adults
Sometimes well-meaning parents and teachers set up educational play for their children, but often it’s not the type of play that best fosters whole child development. Often, the “play” adults set up has limitations that inhibit the capacity of the play, thereby inhibiting the learning outcomes for children.
When we set up an art project with an end goal, children learn to follow procedures, to create, and to feel accomplished. While this type of planned activity has important merits, an open-ended art project, in which the child chooses the medium, subject, and end project will require the child to plan, make choices, practice technique, and exercise creativity.
Likewise, when we let our children play at a traditional playground, their play and creativity is bounded by the structures already present. Children aren’t likely to imagine or construct a new world if the playscape is obviously a pirate’s boat; it will always be a boat. While children may imagine that the pre-constructed window is an ice cream stand or lemonade stand, the fixed construction limits children’s imagination. Give children the loose materials to create their own environment, however, and you’ll open their play to endless possibilities. On a traditional playground, for example, I’ve witnessed children using the wood chips as cookies, rain, money, and precious gems!
What is True Play?
True play, on the other hand, is not structured by adults or driven by the agenda of an adult; it’s an entirely child-led process. This type of play has structure and rules, formed entirely in the mind of the child. In true play, children freely choose what to do, what to use, who participates, and for how long it lasts. In true play, children plan, develop, and demolish on their own time—sometimes in seconds and sometimes over days or weeks.
According to Hughes’ play theory, there are 16 types of play. As you watch a child playing, try to determine what type of play it is. Each type of play has unique characteristics and benefits. You can snag this printable for free from Encourage Play.
When children engage in true play, they learn about the world and themselves and develop socially, physically, and intellectually while fully enjoying the magic of childhood.
Enter: the adventure playground, a playspace dedicated to true play. An adventure playground is adult-free, except for the trained playworkers who mindfully oversee the play, intervening only when requested or necessary. The space is stocked with real world and natural “loose parts” items, such as rope, pvc pipes, fabric, tires, wood, sticks, pinecones, and tools, which can all be picked up, moved, and manipulated to the heart’s desire. It’s a space where children are free to engage in cycles of all types of play (dramatic, social, creative, rough and tumble... all of the types of play listed above) without the boundaries of adult agendas!
Adventure playgrounds date back to the 1930s in Denmark, where Danish landscape architect C.T. Sorensen found that children enjoyed playing in the undeveloped lots rather than on constructed playgrounds.
To this day, you can find hundreds of Adventure Playgrounds in Europe, including the UK where playwork has become a profession. In the US, however, you’ll find a small, but growing, number. Currently, you can find these types of playgrounds in such places as New York City, Ithaca NY, Berkeley CA, and Huntington Beach CA. American cultural fears of risk and liability are part of the reason for their scarcity; however, there has been some research to indicate that traditional playgrounds have no fewer accidents than adventure playgrounds.
Why I Believe in Adventure Play for My Child
While not always conveniently available, here are the reasons why I want my child to regularly engage in the types of play provided by adventure playgrounds.
She’ll experience true play and be granted permission to enjoy the magic of childhood. Adventure play provides a true play experience, in which children are free to engage in play limited only by their imaginations.
She’ll be in an engaging environment with supportive adults. Adventure play is staffed by playworkers, trained to be respectful and nonjudgmental of children’s play.
She’ll learn to manage her own risks. Unlike overly safe, constructed playgrounds, adventure play teaches her how the world really works and how her body functions in it, which are skills that will protect her from careless injury.
She’ll develop interpersonal skills. Without parental involvement, she is empowered to forge her own friendships and solve her own social problems, important life skills, which not all children are afforded the opportunity to develop.
She’ll develop physical strengths and motor skills. In an adventure playground, she’ll be picking up and maneuvering items of varying sizes, weights, and bulk. She’ll move her body along different types of structures, developing balance and agility.
She’ll develop intellectually. How do children learn best? Both societal rules and laws of physics are best learned and remembered through trial and error. I know that the lessons my daughter learns on the adventure playground will serve her throughout her life.
Adventure play has gained publicity in recent years through media outlets, play researchers, and play advocates. If you’d like to learn more about it, check out the “further information” below.
Pop Up Adventure Play
Amazing Benefits of Child-Directed by from Pop Up Adventure Play
TED Talk: Decline of Play by Peter Gray
Making Playgrounds a Little More Dangerous by Richard Shiffman in New York Times
Risky Play and Children's Safety: Balancing Priorities for Optimal Child Development by Bussoni, Olsen et al. from International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health
You Can't Teach Children Resilience if they're Micromanaged All Day by Richard Godwin in The Guardian
The Hidden Risks of Avoiding Risky Play from 1000 Hours Outside
The Value of Play 1: The Definition of Play Gives Insights by Peter Gray on Psychology Today
TedX talk about Kindergarten by Professor Doris Fromberg
The Little Boy, short story by Helen E. Buckley