Executive Director Reflection: On Freeing our Children to Play

By: Melissa Spear

It is a beautiful summer day here at Common Ground.  Flowers are in full bloom across our site. The garden is bursting with produce.  A gentle breeze is keeping the heat from feeling oppressive. And 300 summer campers are at play everywhere I go.  

CG Campers climb and play on a big rock during their free time

What is it about seeing children play?  I don’t mean playing a game – I mean engaging in FREE play, made-up play, imaginative play.  Research has shown that free, autonomous play (meaning play that is self-directed as opposed to being directed by an adult) helps children develop important skills they will use for the rest of their lives.  Unfortunately kids today have far fewer opportunities to engage in free play than many of us did as children. This, according to a number of authors who have studied the issue, has led to a decline in the social emotional skills that free play helps to develop.  

What are some of the benefits of free or self-directed play without adult interference?  Self-directed play engages children in exploration and experimentation that leads to learning.  In her book “The Gardener to the Carpenter”, parents need to get out of the way of children’s natural capacity to learn through play and observation of the world.  The optimal role of the adults in the lives of children is to create nourishing ecosystem in which they can engage their intuitive understanding of mathematics, mass, gravity and other fundamental principles of the world around them.  Gopnik argues that self-directed play and free exploration create the capacity for creativity and innovation, skills that we need more of in the 21st century workplace.  Work today is less about learning a rote set of tasks that are performed over and over, and instead requires more problem solving and critical thinking skills, the kinds of skills that are developed during free play.

According to Ellen Sandster, a professor of early childhood education at Queen Mawd University in Norway, autonomous play

Running through the sprinkler sparks imaginative play on a hot summer day

also develops the capacity to evaluate risk and builds self confidence in children.  Children often seek a sense of danger and excitement during free play. This does not mean that an activity a child is engaged in during free play is actually dangerous, only that the child FEELS she is taking a risk.  Sandster identified six kinds of risk that provide significant learning opportunities for children: 1) Exploring heights 2) handling “dangerous” tools 3) being near dangerous elements like fire or water 4) engaging in rough play like wrestling or play fighting 5) experiencing speed and 6) exploring on one’s own.  By engaging in these activities children learn to overcome their fear and understand the natural consequences of risk taking, both of which are crucial survival skills. Karen Lewis, who authored the book “The Good News About Bad Behavior” also asserts that allowing kids to have falls and scrapes and tumbles teaches them that they can survive being hurt, and helps develop an inherent understanding of what constitutes a reasonable risk.

Perhaps the most important benefit derived from the way children engage with one another during self-directed play is social –emotional in nature.  During free play children are required to communicate, problem solve, negotiate and overcome conflict. These are important skills that contribute to the development of healthy relationships as an adult.

Creating time and space for children to safely engage in free play and self-directed exploration is at the heart of Common Ground’s children’s programs.  The Environmental Educators that lead our children’s programs are highly skilled at creating a nourishing ecosystem in which children can develop a sense of autonomy while engaging in self-directed outdoor activities.  While our NatureYear program has been specifically designed to create an environment that facilitates self-directed play, all children’s programs adhere to the philosophy that free play is a powerful way for children to learn and develop critical cognitive and social emotional skills.  With this in mind we strive to create opportunities for self-directed play whenever possible.

In the summer months Common Ground’s campus is filled with children joyfully engaged in a wide variety of outdoor activities.  Walking around campus I see children using tools to create things in the outdoor woodshop, hiking up to the beautiful summit of West Rock Ridge, starting fires in our fire pit, exploring our wetland, helping with the bees, and playing a variety of running and chasing games.  This covers just about all of the 6 “risky” activities that Ellen Sandster claims help build important risk evaluation skills and self-confidence.

Campers create their own song and dance during a camp opening ceremony

While building these skills is an important part of what happens here at Common Ground there is another important benefit that I see our campers experience every day: laughter and expressions of joy. According to an expert at orlando inpatient drug rehab, smiling, laughing and experiencing feelings of joy releases seratonins and endorphins into our body which naturally relieve anxiety and stress. Smiling also releases the neurotransmitter dopamine which produces feelings of happiness.  Prolonged stress and anxiety have been shown to have a significant negative impact on health and life span. Creating opportunities for young people to experience joy and laughter and relieve stress through free play is therefore an important contributor to their overall health.  Perhaps we adults need to recognize that getting outdoors and playing is not just for kids, but is something that we can also do for ourselves! So get outside this summer and do something fun, just like the campers at Common Ground. It will do all of us good!


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