One of my favorite quotes about play is from Albert Einstein: Play is the highest form of research. I have experienced first hand the research that children can accomplish when play is supported through a developmentally appropriate environment. Open-ended play experiences and materials like boxes, blocks, and loose parts provide endless opportunities for children to not only construct their learning but also learn vital skills they need to succeed in life. When children are empowered to play, they take ownership of the process and in turn, become much more vested in what they are creating. While society puts a heavy emphasis on academics, the truth is there is nothing more important than each child’s social and emotional development. A strong sense of self, the ability to problem-solve, collaborate, self-regulate, have empathy, and make decisions are 21st-century skills, developed through play.
When I joined the Free Play Matters Task Force in 2017, I was elated at the opportunity to share my passion for play with the members of my community. I could not believe that the concept of play in our public schools, neighborhoods, and community was a topic I could talk about with people other than my colleagues. To date, my entire career has focused on inspiring teachers and teachers in training that play was the best way for children to grow and learn. I listened, talked with friends, participated in meetings, shared on social media, and finally decided I needed to take action and lead by example.
As the 2017 school year drew to an end, I wanted to help foster the relationships of the children in my neighborhood. I decided to invite a few of the children on our bus loop over for a play date after school. I had one condition. It was going to be an outside play date. Under no circumstances would there be any inside play. I planned to recycle all the boxes I had accumulated over the last several months. I added markers, tape, and scissors along with other loose parts like various sized foam packing pieces and fillers. I also added a tree stump painting station, giant Jenga, some jump ropes, balls, and a canoe. I wasn’t sure what they would do with a canoe in the middle of the yard, but I was feeling compelled to make it available.
The bus pulled up that beautiful June summer day, and five children jumped off and ran with pent up exhilaration down our driveway to the house. By the time I caught up with them, they were crawling all over the kitchen and living room floor. I quickly herded the group out to the deck for lunch and then set them free. The play started with lots of running through the trail and onto the zip line. An abundance of animated voices and laughter carried across the yard as they each found their way and figured out how to secure the zip line in the right position so they could jump on and be whisked across the yard. They ran, jumped, and used their full bodies to experience their play. I hid on the deck behind the bushes trying to take photos. I was determined to stay in the shadows and not get involved. Let them figure it out. My condition to myself was – don’t step foot off this deck unless there is blood. They played independently for quite some time.
Then it was quiet. They moved as a group to play giant Jenga. They took the time to consider each choice and coached each other on which block should come out next. They circled, they shouted “No, not that block. Choose this one!” and “Oh, you got so lucky it didn’t fall.” They worked together, and 20 minutes later the blocks all came crashing down and the game ended with happy children. I saw them staring at the boxes and took a deep breath. “How is this going to go?” I thought to myself.
They circled a bit and tried to make sense of what they were seeing. And then the spark happened. One child in the group shouted, “We can pretend it’s a vampire coffin!!” Another child jumped in, and the others attempted to close her in, but they couldn’t quite figure out how to keep the box closed. I watched and resisted my overwhelming desire to intervene. I lost that battle with myself. The teacher in me reacted and shouted across the yard, “Use the tape!” My feet were still planted on the deck. I had not broken my rule yet.
They pulled long pieces off the roles and started to tape the box together. All was going well except; one child did not participate. He was still circling the boxes. My feet just started walking, and before I knew it there I was asking him questions about what he was thinking. “Can I make a book?”, he said. “Sure! You can use anything you see here.”, I said. He had other ideas about what he wanted to do with the boxes. All he needed was permission. He needed to know that he could follow his thoughts and about what was available to him.
From this point forward, the play was on. The children flowed in and out of creating with the boxes, painting in another area of the yard, or picking up the balls and playing catch. Sometimes they played in groups of two, sometimes in groups of three, and sometimes they were deeply immersed in creating a personal piece. Me, I was entirely off the deck. I was refilling paint containers, responding to requests for scissors, more boxes, and more tape!!! They showed me their creations, wanted me to critique their painting, and most of all kept confirming with me what they had permission to do. I was their facilitator. I gave them the tools and provided an environment where they could freely explore. I was there when they needed me but gone when they didn’t.
For three hours, not one request to play inside. They kept creating and inventing. The canoe? They sat in it for about five minutes and then decided it would much more fun to flip it over and try to balance it. Did they fall? You bet they did. But they got right back up. The joy and laughter of this play was priceless. I was not involved in the canoe play. By this time, they knew what to do and the choices they could make. My story about play ends with a good old tire swing. They took turns swinging and pushing each other. Games were created, disagreements ensued, but I was on the deck. They figured it out on their own.
This experience only confirmed for me what I already knew to be true of play and children. Play is the work of children, and it is a vital part of the growing and learning process. Whatever form it takes, and no matter what the materials are, the environment we provide for children and the messages we share about the importance of play impact their current and future state of mind.
As we continue to explore the possibilities and benefits of play for the children, I believe that it will take a collective effort for us to move forward. In time we can evolve in our approaches through educating ourselves on developmentally appropriate practice and how learning through play in our schools can continue to grow. We can reflect on the choices we make around scheduling our children’s time. We can find solace in the fact each child’s path to reaching their potential is rooted in their ability to love themselves, trust and know who are they are, what they believe in and use that knowledge to carve out their place and purpose in this world. Some call it finding or discovering yourself. As I noted earlier, play is the highest form of research. The process of discovery starts with play.