Creating an Environment For Unstructured Play
By Sam Flatman
What schools and communities can do to contribute to children's
opportunities for unstructured, loosely supervised play.
No one knows exactly what the future holds for our children, but
giving them plenty of confidence and happiness is an excellent way to
prepare them for the unknown. With these two attributes, our children
will approach life with a positive attitude and have the courage to find
new solutions to old problems. Research confirms what experienced
parents and teachers already know: Natural play is the best way to build
happiness and confidence in children.
Unstructured, loosely supervised play opportunities improve
children’s physical health, mental health, and emotional well-being.
Playtime has an enormous positive impact on children’s happiness levels
and self-esteem. It’s best to maximize play and minimize excessive time
in front of a screen, which is linked to depression, anxiety, and
nervous disorders in children. As little as twenty minutes of play in a
green space can have a measurable positive impact on a child’s ability
to concentrate in the classroom. There is also evidence that links play
to cognitive developments and academic achievement.
Parents and teachers should move from away from thinking about play
and learning as two separate entities and towards a natural model where
they fully complement one another. Much can be learned from Finland’s
system, which emphasizes the role of play in preparing children for
learning at the age of seven. Although the country has a small
population, it still punches way above its weight in terms of student
achievement in Math and Science.
Play has an important developmental role in nurturing a child’s
social and academic confidence. In The Play Return, a 2014
report commissioned by the Children’s Play Policy Forum in the UK,
researcher and writer Tim Gill notes that access to playgrounds and play
opportunities for children is an excellent predictor of overall family
happiness. Play has even been shown to cultivate good relations between
different ethnic and social groups in schools.
When children benefit through play, the local community benefits too.
A child who grows up with access to playgrounds and play opportunities
is more likely to give back to the community through volunteering than
someone who grows up without access to play. Unstaffed public
playgrounds are proven to decrease both vandalism and levels of
antisocial behavior, which suggests that when given the opportunity
children prefer playing to getting into trouble.
Wild play offers many excellent learning opportunities for children.
Loosely supervised children discuss rules and manage disputes when they
play amongst themselves.
Emotional skills, from taking turns to making apologies, have a
chance to develop without adult guidance. It’s entirely plausible that
the social skills learned in these play situations stimulates a greater
sense of community in children, and this is what encourages them to give
back through volunteering when they are older.
Beneficial Play Environments
Providing our children with a monochrome concrete landscape around
our schools isn’t good enough. In order to maximize physical activity in
children, a play environment needs a variety of bright colors, different
markings, modern play equipment, and all the accessories needed for
games. Research shows that when these steps are implemented, children
get more physical activity in their unstructured break than they do in
their physical education lessons.
Here are some of our favorite play landscapes from recent projects
that we have completed at Pentagon Sport, where I work.
The brightly colored grips used on this climbing wall invite children to
use the equipment. Climbing walls are great for improving balance and
coordination, and strengthening the upper body.
There are many different kinds of markings that can be incorporated
into playgrounds, no matter how big or small the space. This first image
shows how a colored wetpour surface can be used as a foundation for
climbing frames to make the ground softer and safer for children. The
numbered bull’s eye is a great target for outdoor math games.
Another example of playground markings are these fun race tracks
which make the most of a small space. The town-style layout encourages
children to engage in creative play, pretending that they are racing
around the town on their bike or in their car.
Using new, innovative play equipment is an excellent way to engage
children in play. Mud kitchens are very popular with early learners and
primary schools at the moment. Mud kitchens encourage children to work
together and use their imagination to make various mud creations.
Molding, shaping and mixing mud engages children in sensory play too.
Waterways are another excellent piece of play equipment which can be
easily integrated into the science and math curriculum to develop an
understanding of the water cycle as well as boost problem-solving
skills, ability to measure water, and scientific thinking.
How Much Play?
Older children need at least an hour of moderate to strenuous
physical activity each day, according to experts. Kids who are under the
age of five and able to walk by themselves should get at least three
hours of exercise daily. Encouraging physical activity is the best step
that a school can take to decrease levels of obesity and keep children
fit. Outside of school, this should ideally be supplemented by at least
three to four afternoon and evening play opportunities.
Sam Flatman has been working in the education and play
sector for the past ten years and has a passion for outdoor education.
He is an Educational Consultant for Pentagon Sport –
which designs innovative playgrounds for schools. Sam believes that
outdoor learning is an essential part of child development, and should
be integrated into the school curriculum. Sam lives in Bristol, England
with his two sons.