Creating a Shift in the Evolution of the Way Children Play

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Like the adults in their lives, kids need downtime too. While adults have cultivated the savvy skills to know when it’s time to take a break, kids can’t always tell us when their batteries need a recharge. One way to help them reset is to encourage some unstructured time in nature, away from screens

Spending Time Outside Has Many Benefits 

Spending time outdoors helps kids grow and better develop their creativity and self-awareness. Claude Stephens, director of the Children at Play Network for Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, says one of the greatest benefits of spending time outside is the feeling of connection. “We are a part of the natural world and mostly we consider ourselves separate, and the biggest value is erasing our separateness from nature,” says Stephens. Studies reveal that supporting your kids in connecting to the natural world increases self-esteem and establishes resilience against adversity. 

Outdoor Play is Crucial for Healthy Cognitive Development

Bernheim Youth and Family Program Manager Dan Pascucci says that when kids spend time outdoors their brain engages in the environment differently than if they were just hanging out inside. Outdoor play is crucial for healthy cognitive development and offers benefits like learning self-regulation and problem-solving skills, and even risk assessment.

Playing From the Heart Enhances Creativity and Reduces Stress

The folks at Bernheim know firsthand about the rewards playing in nature offers since Bernheim Forest sits on 16,140 acres of land and the mission of their Children at Play program is “to connect children to nature through free play.” So, how can you structure some unstructured playtime for your children? Pascucci defines free play as play that evolves from within. “It’s play that comes from the heart and mind of the player,” Pascucci says. And Stephens explains free play as follows: The player decides what they’re going to do, where they’re going to do it, for how long, and this is done for intrinsic reasons — not for some kind of reward or payoff. This type of playing from the heart is important for many reasons including enhancing creativity and reducing stress. 

Photo Credit: Children at Play


Creating a Shift in the Evolution of the Way Children Play

Stephens reveals that unstructured play occurs less often than you might think. As parents and caregivers, we’re there making sure our children wake up for school, make healthy eating choices, brush their teeth, finish their homework, change their socks, and, sometimes we step in and guide their play. This is why creating a safe space and making time for kids to practice their decision-making skills is so essential. “So, what we’re talking about is a shift, an evolution in the way children play,” Stephens says. 

Boredom Reigns Supreme and Leads to Imaginative Exploration

“You don’t provide instructions or rules that are unnecessary,” Stephens says. You might have to put some guardrails around aspects of playtime to keep your child safe, but generally, these boundaries aren’t many. “The more you can turn over the play to your child, so they’re making the decisions, the healthier they will be,” Stephens says. It’s alright if this doesn’t go perfectly in the beginning because it can feel awkward, but this is where boredom reigns supreme because it leads to imaginative exploration. Kids will gravitate to the type of free play they need and as parents and caregivers, it’s our job to step back and allow this to flow naturally. 

Lead by Example as a Family

If you find your kid needs extra encouragement, Stephens says you can try unstructured play as a family first to let your child experience free play as a team. “What you’re directing is an opportunity, but not defining it,” he says. And Pascucci suggests being the model for this type of play because this sets your kids up for success. Then, slowly pull away the support structure you’ve created. Stephens suggests making a family plan and setting aside time every week (or every day) to get outside and play. 

Letting Their Imagination Guide Them

“During those times when the whole point is not to have a point, don’t decide what’s going to happen next,” Stephens encourages. It’s also good to note that the richer the outdoor environment the more opportunity your child will have to let their imagination guide them. Piles of loose parts (sticks, leaves, straw, etc.) can be the catalyst for games to develop and fairy forts to be built. “Outdoor play is a movement,” Stephens begins, “and anyone can join the movement. It’s easy and no equipment is needed.”

Tags: Activities for Kids, Developing Skills & Character, Outdoor Adventures

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Written By

Tonilyn Hornung

Tonilyn is an author and freelance writer who lives with her husband, young son, many furry friends, and never enough closet space. See Full Bio

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