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Restoring Children’s Play: Creating Places for Social Play

Overcoming the social isolation society has imposed on children.

Source: Pixabay

Children are suffering today from too much adult structuring of their activities and not enough freedom to play and explore in their own chosen ways (for some of the evidence, see here, here, and here).

A few weeks ago, I posted an essay in which I asked readers to present ideas about how to restore children’s independent outdoor play in today’s world. I focused on outdoor play because it offers the opportunities for vigorous physical exercise, exciting adventures, and escape from adult interference that our children today most sorely need.

The ideas presented in response to that survey fell into three general categories:

  1. Ways for parents to overcome their own misgivings and fears about their children’s independent outdoor play
  2. Ways to enable children to find other children with whom to play
  3. Ways to work at the community or state level to overcome societal barriers to children’s freedom

I have chosen to write separate essays dealing with each of these categories. The first was posted here a couple of weeks ago. Now, here is the second essay in the series.

When I was a kid, many decades ago, there was no problem finding playmates. All I had to do was go outside. In those days, as was true almost everywhere throughout most of human history, kids from about age 5 on up were free to play and roam outdoors, independently of adults, to their hearts’ content. In fact, many parents pushed their kids outdoors to get them out of their hair.

But now, for all the reasons I’ve discussed previously, children are pretty much stuck indoors or, if outdoors, they are being directed and supervised by adults in ways that preclude free play and exploration.

More than almost anything else, children want to play with other children, away from adult control. If your child is free to go outdoors but others are not, then, quite reasonably, your child will come back inside or get onto a smartphone to interact with friends in the only way that is possible in the socially isolating world we have forced upon children.

To enable children to play in the real, physical world we need to find ways to bring them together in spaces that are safe enough to meet the demands of today’s highly protective parents, but, at the same time, sufficiently free from adult control that real play is possible.

Here is a list of possibilities, some of which include quotes from readers who responded to the survey.

Outdoor preschools and forest kindergartens. While most preschools and kindergartens have been wrong-headedly and even cruelly reducing play and increasing “academics” (such an odd word to apply to little children), a few have moved sharply in the other direction.

In response to the survey, Lisa wrote: “I co-own an outdoor preschool on a farm in MA that provides young children the time, space and community for growing and learning outside, on the farm and in the forest in all weather. While our days have rhythm and routine, the children spend the majority of their time exploring, creating, observing...on their own and with friends.”

The forest kindergarten movement, which has a long history in Europe, is beginning to take hold in the United States. In these kindergartens, children and the staff are outdoors regardless of the weather and the children play and explore freely every day. (For one example in the U.S., click here).

Maybe you can help get one started near where you live. Wouldn’t it be great if school districts began to offer outdoor kindergartens as a free option for any family who chooses it?

Adventure playgrounds. Like forest kindergartens, adventure playgrounds got their start many years ago in Europe, but are now beginning to appear increasingly in the United States. These are fenced-off outdoor areas where children are free to create their own play, and even to play in ways that adults deem risky. Children may engage in such activities as climbing trees, building fires, having stick fights, and using tools, nails, and old boards to build forts or whatever they wish.

An earlier name for such playgrounds was “junk playgrounds,” because they are equipped with junk that children love to play with and make things with. A defining feature that makes such playgrounds acceptable to parents is the presence of one or more playworkers, who are trained to be present without intervening in play unless there is a clear danger. At most adventure playgrounds, parents are not welcome within the play area because of the realization that even well-intentioned parents often cannot help but interfere in their children’s play. Here is an adventure playground in New York City,.

Wouldn’t it be great if there were such a playground within walking distance for every child? There is no reason, economically, why that should not be possible.

Camps where kids structure their own time. When I was in my late teens, in the 1960s, I worked as a waterfront director in summer camps. Those camps—as was true for many if not most summer camps in those days—were primarily places for free play.

Campers could swim or use the canoes any time I was manning the waterfront (which was about five hours each day), or they could roam and play anywhere else on the campgrounds whenever they chose. I, and other camp personnel, offered instruction when kids asked for it, but otherwise, we let them figure things out on their own, which is almost always what kids prefer.

Today camps, like nearly all the other places we put kids into, are largely places where children spend most of their time doing what adults tell them to do. They are not much different from schools. But there are some encouraging trends in the opposite direction.

Here, for example, is a camp that opened up two or three years ago explicitly as a place where children are free, trusted, and respected. It has experienced great success. Nearly all kids who go there one year want to go back the next. We need more camps like this one. For unschoolers, a great opportunity lies in Not Back to School Camp, with sites in Oregon and Vermont.

Schools as places for play. One of my own favorite potential solutions to the play problem, for which I advocate whenever I have the chance, is that schools open up for free play during those hours between the end of the school day and the time when parents are home from work.

This would solve not only the play problem but also the babysitting problem that plagues so many families today. Nearly the entire school could be available for play—the outdoor playground, gymnasium, swimming pool if there is one, art rooms, computer room. Children in all grades would be free to play together (unlike at recess), and age-mixed play is generally far more exciting and enriching than same-age play.

You would need some adults—ideally, playworkers—to monitor and make sure things are safe enough. I don’t know of any schools yet that are doing what I’ve been proposing, but many are intrigued and some have made a beginning.

The Patchogue-Medford School District on Long Island, NY, now has an hour of free play in the morning one day a week. It’s a beginning, and it is working out wonderfully. For a great little video about it, see here. The kids—and even the parents and teachers and principals—at other schools are getting jealous and starting to demand such opportunities at their school.

I think this will spread and eventually at least some schools will start offering play every day after school, not just before. There is some expense, but the expense is small compared to the rest of the school budget, and there is nothing more educationally valuable for kids than play!

Afterschool play care or play clubs. Until school boards and education authorities become smart enough to institute afterschool play at school, free for everyone, other options are available at least for some.

Melissa wrote: “I work at an aftercare program that picks students up at several local elementary schools in an urban setting. We have a few acres of woods. While there is an indoor space available, almost all the children spend the entire time outside, playing sports, make-believe, or building forts. The kids always know where to find an adult if they are hurt or need help with a power tool, but most of the time they are not being directly supervised. It's a really wonderful program, and I wish there were more like it.”

Tamara wrote that she offers afterschool play care for elementary-aged children at her home, which has “great outdoor space that is natural and filled with loose parts. They complain when they have to go home.”

And Doreen wrote: “I started a local free play club in my area by posting on a moms group and then directed those who were interested to a new Facebook group I created for it. We are up to 80 members and we meet once or twice a week at different local playgrounds.”

Libraries as places for play. What? you may ask. Aren’t libraries places where you have to be quiet and read? In today’s world, where so much reading is online, libraries are taking on new functions. Many are becoming more general community centers and some—still a small number, to be sure—are, as part of that, embracing free play at the library.

The best example I know of is the Laura Bush branch of the Westbank Library in Austin, Texas, which opens up for free play every Monday from 4:00 to 7:00 pm (and for even more hours in the summer). Kids play inside the library and outside on the library lawn. Sometimes there are as many as 100 kids there at a time. During these play periods, a sign is hung up in the main library area saying “Joyful noise is welcome.”

Parents who come with their young ones are encouraged to socialize with other parents and let their kids play without them. People who normally would never come to the library are getting to know it and love it. For a great talk about this program by a member of the library staff, see here, and for reports to the Texas State Library Commission about it, see here and here.

I am personally very excited about the idea of libraries becoming centers for play. As I see it, libraries are publicly supported centers for self-directed education, and, for children, play is the single most important vehicle of self-directed education.

Choosing or creating play-friendly neighborhoods. There are still some places where kids play freely in the neighborhood. They tend to be in cul-de-sacs where there are few cars and many kids and are more common in working-class neighborhoods than in wealthier ones. Also, some people are developing intentional communities, designed to encourage neighbors to know one another and children to play freely.

Amanda wrote: “We have found a community that is a throwback to the 1980s; our housing co-operative. Everyone knows everyone. The kids roam around in packs that change and shift depending on who is outside at the time. They build forts, play in the mud, climb trees, and God only knows what else; but they are having the time of their lives! Adults are always about, but not necessarily monitoring the children. The kids get plenty of time to explore nature, their bodies, and relationships with each other, with all the bumps, bruises, and arguments that entails. We have 5 acres of land that is fenced in but is full of trees, and even a creek. It is a kid's paradise.”

If you can’t move, if you are stuck in a neighborhood where the kids are always indoors or being carted off to some structured activity, there may still be things you can do to make your neighborhood more play friendly.

James wrote: “Go outside and play with your kids in the yard and take walks around the neighborhood. A lot of them are indoors, but you'll run into kids and families eventually. Just invite them over to play in your yard too. It takes some effort, but ‘getting the kids together’ is a great excuse for adults to get together.”

And, for much more on how to create a play-friendly neighborhood, I recommend Mike Lanza’s now-classic book, Playborhood. In it, he describes how people in seven very different types of neighborhoods created ways for their kids to find one another and play freely.

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