“Don’t touch the rocks! Dirty!” As ironic as it sounds, these are the common remarks heard in the park or playground when children tried to engage in exploratory play. Play as the word implied, is often viewed as a waste of time. David Whitebread, a psychologist at Cambridge University observed, “play is often perceived as immature behavior that doesn’t achieve anything. But it’s essential to their development” (Kohn, 2015, para. 14). Added to parental anxiety for an early academic head start, children are caught with structured activities to develop academically without room for free play. “Teachers give kindergarten children tests and assign them homework. Ponderous educational toys abound for the toddler, and even infancy no longer has much time for free play” (Elkind, 2008, p. 1). Overwhelming academic activities with strict adults-inhibition can be detrimental for development of little minds.
Toddler observing a branch with pine cones closely
Little hands are meant to touch
Children are sometimes punished for exploring their world. Little hands are meant to touch, feel and figure out the meanings behind every material. Preventing a child from discovering their environment would be a deterrent for their development. As what Montessori said, “what the hands do to the mind.” Renowned child psychologists such as Piaget and Erickson had reinforced the importance of giving children the freedom to explore the environment during the early childhood period. In Piaget’s Sensorimotor and Preoperational Stage, children “think by acting on the world with their eyes, ears, hands and mouth, and “use symbols to represent their earlier sensorimotor discoveries” (Berk & Meyers, 2012, p. 19). In stage 2 and 3 of Erickson’s Psychoanalytic Theory of Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt of 18 months to 3 years and Initiative vs Guilt of 3 years to 5 years respectively, the importance of giving children the autonomy for discovery and empowering their initiative to find meanings in their world are emphasized. Failure to provide children the leverage of freedom may result in insecure children with feelings of shame, doubt and guilt.
Free play offers children unlimited opportunities for self-discovery. Children may stumble and fall but they are quick to pick themselves up over and over again. There are no designated confined play areas, no specific activities and no fixed materials to restrain a child’s natural impulses. “Outdoor play spaces are designed to offer children different play experiences with a balance of skills and concepts that promote active movement, exploration of the unknown, experiences with unpredictable events, and new discoveries. There is versatility with the space, coupled with equipment and materials that stimulate children’s senses, curiosity, opportunities for intrigue, interests and abilities” (Dietze & Kashin, 2012, p. 139). Whatever they learned during the outdoor play cannot be taught on textbooks but only assessed by their five senses of touching, smelling, tasting, seeing and hearing.
No fixed materials to restrain a child’s natural impulses
The more time and flexibility children spent in outdoor play, the more they are inspired to create something original and let their imagination drives them. “Numerous experimental psychology studies have linked exposure to nature with increased energy and heightened sense of well-being” (Weinstein et al, 2010, para. 5). Outdoor play opportunities not only amplify the activity level of children and encourage exploration; it also creates emotional comfort as they make sense of the world in their terms. Spoiled by the enriching sense of nature, children’s stimulation became heightened by their own discovery with boundless loose part objects. “Play episodes allow children to assimilate the information that they gather and then, by using it in play, make sense of it. This contributes to a child creating his own” knowledge” (Dietze & Kashin, 2012, p.135). Free and unstructured outdoor play opportunities enabled the child to engage creatively with their inner-self in multiple dimensions by seeking, participating and persisting in an open-ended environment.
Play is sometimes overlooked. “Children learn through play, but their capacity for learning is limited by their social situation”(Elkind, 2008, p. 4). Peer pressure and stiff competition among parents may overshadow children’s development at an early age. It’s okay to let children take time in their academic achievements. And it’s okay to let them take some risks and fall! Free and unstructured play offers children plenty of freedom for problem-solving situations and creates meaningful experiences of their own, minus the stress plus all the profound benefits of developing their inner-strengths.
Dietze,B & Kashin,D. (2012) Playing and learning in early childhood education. Toronto, Ontario: Pearson Canada Inc.
Berk,L.E. & Meyers,A,B. (2016) Infants and children prenatal through middle childhood. United States of America: Pearson Education
Weinstein, Bernstein, J., McGill University, Brown, K.W., Virginia Commonwealth University, Mastella,L., University of Rochester, Gagne, M., & Concordia Universtiy. Spending time in nature makes people feel more alive, study shows. University of Rochester. Retrieved from http://www.rochester.edu/news/show.php?id=3639
Elkind,D. (2008). The Power of Play. Journal of Play. Retrieved from http://www.journalofplay.org/sites/www.journalofplay.org/files/pdf-articles/1-1-article-elkind-the-power-of-play.pdf
Kohn.D. (2015). Let the kids learn through play. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/opinion/sunday/let-the-kids-learn-through-play.html