The Value of Free Play in Nature
Wandering and Free Play in Nature
Brian D King MS
Wander through the landscape without time, destination, agenda, or future purpose; be present in the moment; and go off-trail wherever curiosity leads. Hmmm …an educational activity without purpose? A walk in nature without a destination or intent? Are we serious? Yep! Adult intervention does not add value to free play and the work by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, Michael Thompson Phd, Jon Young, Anthony D. Pellegrini PhD, and Peter K. Smith Phd shows that free play is necessary for brain and social development, character development and interpersonal skills.
Furthermore, studies have shown that intervention during the play by adults can only take value away from the benefits of free play not enhance play. Let me say that a different way. Let kids play without giving them direction or rules, just let them play. In today’s world of standardized testing, TV, organized sports and electronic toys, children have very little time for just being kids and engaging in real self-directed free play.
Unstructured time yes, we feel so serious about this routine, that most of our programs have the first day of the sessions as a “wander” or “walkabout” for not 20 minutes or an hour but for 6 hours or more.
Undirected free play does not mean unsupervised time. The staff positions themselves up the creek boundary, down the creek boundary and around the edges of the meadow and in the forest. They can see the children and prevent them from doing truly dangerous or destructive behavior.
On that day we hike out to a meadow of about 100 acres bordered by forests with shady cool creeks crossing the land.
The kids that have grown up in our programs tell the newer kids
They drop their day packs and run off to explore, climb trees, build forts, make paint from the rocks in the creeks, balance rocks, take off their shoes and wade in the water looking for crayfish, skip stones, make up games, imagine, tumble, develop games. The kids play the way their ancestors did from the beginning of man.
We count on the excitement of the moment, involving timeless, unstructured wandering. There is nothing to accomplish, nowhere to go. By just being present in the moment, curiosity gently leads the children wherever they go.
Please take a moment to read this section to be sure you understand our philosophy and why we choose to give our campers ample time to explore a creek, run up a hill and roll down it, or just use their imagination. We do not consider these activities to be wasted time. We firmly believe that many of the activities that take place during free play are the essential "work" of childhood.
In the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics*, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed., starts off, "Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth." Playing a directed game with learning objectives is not enough. Children need undirected self-initiated free play. Ginsburg continues, "Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue."
Make no mistake: free play is not free time for our staff. There are always staff people to make sure the kids stay safe, but we work at not hindering their play, creativity or imagination during this time.
At the end of the day the staff mentors the students; ask the students to tell the story of what they did. They will not ask “What did you learn today?” but rather “Who has something cool to share. They are given all the time they need to tell their story without interruption, interpretation, or judgment. With only 15 students and no other agenda but to hear the students’ story they all get heard.
If a child tells a story about seeing a lizard, at the end of the story a mentor or a student might ask “what color was it? Was it smooth or rough? What did the feet look like? How many toes did it have? Did it have ears? Was the tail bigger or smaller than the rest of the lizard? And so on. These questions help the student tap into their awareness. It they do not know any of the answers there is no judgment. But now there is more curiosity and the child will be very excited to tell at camp fire what they saw the next time they see a lizard.
The staff will not point out a lizard and say it is a Western Fence Lizard, but will ask key questions and the next time the child sees a reptile field guide will be on the lookout for the lizard on those pages. Other time the staff will just enjoy hearing about their adventures. At camp fire these kids will also be excited to draw the stories from the staff. This is the way that our ancestors learned 100s, 1,000s, or 10,000s of years ago. This is just one example of a journey a child may take in their wander.
Check back here periodically for other stories of free play and wander.
*Volume 119, Number 1, January 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health full text
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