“May what I do flow from me like a river, no forcing and no holding back, the way it is with children.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke Click To Tweet
In all the debate regarding the overall health of our children in today’s world, there is one aspect that is simply non-negotiable: play. The benefits of play for our children — that is, truly natural, unstructured free play in which kids are allowed to command themselves and their space with little to no involvement from adults — is tantamount to some of the most important heath care issues for grown-ups.
All species are biologically pre-disposed to play, not just humans. Yet it remains far too easy to notice the effects of the initially well-intentioned but ultimately self-defeating attitudes of our institutions regarding (or, rather dis-regarding) the benefits of play all around us. It is a disappointing thing to see new playgrounds developed in city spaces sit there empty each day, or to walk in the park and hear no laughter.
But, you may protest, if children are so naturally given to play, don’t they have a tendency to kind of ‘take it and make it’ anywhere they go? Surely this can’t be that big of a problem!
Augmenting The Benefits of Play
While it may be true that there’s no removing kids’ natural tendencies towards play, what we must remember is that everything adapts to its environment. With so much play being offered through sedentary, indoor activities due to the overwhelming influx of the ‘digital lifestyle’ in last couple of decades, the benefits of play — again, a holistic, full-bodied, ‘all-capacities-engaged’ type of play — have been somewhat fractured, regardless of the advantages these other types of activities may provide.
What is missing here is not the children per se, but materials and environments that create challenge, imagination, and creativity — things that make children want to play outdoors, that spur their curiosity and excite their natural tendencies to have fun.
Yet when the general environment they find themselves in has instead been systemically geared, across generations, towards a kind of manicured, heavily rule-oriented, more ‘adult feeling’ version of play, the natural impetus to do so is ironically lost.
The absence of such play environments is not only influencing the quantity and quality of children’s play, but, as mentioned, also affecting our childrens’ overall states of health and well-being.
Outdoor play is a necessary part of children’s overall growth and is considered essential for kids to gain the inherent benefits of play, which includes accelerated skill-development in areas that naturally interest them.
Playing outdoors provides unique opportunities for this type of learning that the indoor environment simply cannot. For example, children engage in higher levels of creativity, imagination, inventiveness, physical activity, language, and curiosity when given the opportunity to play freely.
The Costs of Disregarding Play
When we look at why this disappearance of free play is happening, we realize that there are many factors that contribute to the lack of play.
There are increases in structured play activities, an emergence of technology-based play objects, higher concerns related to safety and risk, adult control over children’s play activities, academically oriented schools, and an overall lack of knowledge regarding the value that the many benefits of play can provide for our kids.
More often than not, we see children engaged in a summer filled with structured sports activities or sitting inside with gaming systems and cell phones. We hear adults saying “don’t pick up the sticks!” “don’t go too far!” and “be careful!”. And we’re all well aware of the school systems’ recent moves toward decreasing recess time (or taking it away all together).
Unfortunately, it is all too common that today’s society has an overall disregard for the benefits of play and how important it is for children of all ages. It is ultimately these factors that are placing a barrier between children and their right to play freely in the outdoors.
The inability to cross this barrier is affecting children in many areas of development. For example, there are increases in anxiety and depression at younger ages as well as difficulties with emotional regulation and self-control.
Increases in physical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and asthma are also becoming more apparent in young children and childhood disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more frequently diagnosed.
Children who do not have access to outdoor play will miss out on the many benefits of play the natural environment has to offer toward their growth.
As parents and adults, we need to support our children in every way we can to learn and, more importantly, feel the inherent benefits of play in the outdoors.
It is vital that we inspire imagination and creativity in our youth, encouraging them to fully engage the natural faculties they were born with, and that will, if allowed even a little free-rein, soon take off on their own.
To do this, we can look toward two timeless and simple things: nature and adventure.
The Benefits of Play in the Outdoors
When children are engaged in self-directed activities in the outdoors, they are provided innumerable opportunities for freedom, choice, and fewer routines.
In free play, there is no adult direction or control, so children are able to play how they want to play. This in itself is automatically attractive to all kids.
When the youth are given such freedom to play, they are more likely to engage in higher levels of social interaction, developing particular cognitive muscles such as ‘off-the-cuff’ decision-making and reasoning, become more familiar with spontaneous emotions and their regulation, as well as, of course, reaping the many advantages of good ol’ sunshine and exercise. In turn, they are less likely to become inattentive, anxious, or depressed and unhealthy.
The outdoor environment in particular holds many intrinsic catalysts to the benefits of play. Any natural green space allows children to continuously explore ways to use materials, discover the varied environment, and create their own play experiences.
Such green spaces are not man-made areas and are therefore diverse and timeless. Children who play outdoors have heightened senses and emotions from the ever-changing topography and the rich stimuli that a natural space affords.
This is how children learn – through experience: by seeing, feeling, touching, and hearing. The outdoor environment is a blank canvas on which children are able to place their own thoughts, wonders, and creations.
The Loose Parts Movement
Again, the most vital aspects in regaining the benefits of play are nature and adventure. While nature is a given, and does induce an inherent impetus towards adventure, there are certain things you can do to help augment this. One of the best is something known as ‘loose parts’.
Loose parts are play objects and materials that are open-ended, manipulative, moveable, and non-dictated. This means that children can make use the materials in a variety of ways without any built in or pre-conceived methods involved. There’s no particular “story” behind these tools (toys).
Loose parts allow children to act upon their environment in the ways that come most naturally to them, from the get-go, rather than having their imaginations and creativity automatically guided into predetermined patterns by the materials.
While it may seem incredibly obvious to those of us born prior to the ubiquitous presence of television and video games in our homes, examples of loose parts are items such as tires, logs, sticks, fabric, rope, and rocks.
Yet for the youngest generation now among us — the so-called ‘digital natives — these things are indeed novelties. Bringing back the benefits of play means bringing us back full-circle to the simplicity of times gone by.
Loose parts can either be synthetic materials or materials that are commonly found in a natural outdoor environment. The key here, and the defining factor, is anything that sparks child’s curiosity. The more open-ended the better. These items will then lead naturally to exploration and discovery.
For example, if a child is provided with rope, tarp, and wooden pieces, she will become curious about what the materials are and how to use them. As her natural faculties of imagination and creativity kick in, she will then begin to explore the materials in different ways.
This leads to discovering that, of course, these are highly versatile, useful and interesting items with which you can do many things! This process of curiosity, exploration, and discovery is ultimately what leads to the benefits of play and the skills developed therein.
Where Can I Find Loose Parts?
You can find loose parts in many places, and they are often free!
- Parks, forests, and natural spaces
- Thrift stores
- Yard sales
- Hardware stores
- Fabric stores
- Local dairy suppliers
- Grocery stores
- Your own recycling bin
Here is a loose parts list that will inspire you to get out there and collect your own:
Bringing It All Together
To support children in loving play again, it is important that we create environments and include materials that are fun, engaging, and challenging. If an environment or an object is too easy, children will view it as boring.
To reintroduce the benefits of play and adventure to your children, consider using loose parts. When loose parts are paired with the outdoors, it will lift children’s spirits, make them love playing again, and ultimately make them happier and healthier.
The Benefits of Play: Full Infographic
Original write-up and infographic by Caleigh Flannigan, an author at Fix.com and a play practitioner who uses forms of play as a way to promote children’s development and emotional healing. Edited for this platform by members of our editorial team.