WonderEd Series: Out for a play
Our children love playing outdoors – outside the house, in the woods, by the creek and getting dirty. They crave for friends to play with them to their hearts’ content. They want to relate to their friends, climb a tree, look at a lady bird, laugh loudly, talk and scream with joy or frustration during their play, get their emotions out, share their feelings, get muddy, move around happily without inhibitions … Sadly, they can’t find many children playing outdoors freely and getting dirty these days. There are issues of children in after-school care, safety, adults available (non) for supervision, children playing indoor games, structured games and technology-related games. Non-formal games and free play are gradually bowing out. So there are now weekend players, club players, indoor players and occasional players.
Playing outdoors in my childhood gave me and my friends different spaces to be in and build our relationships. Within our play pairs or groups we would have conflicts, conflict resolution meetings, peace negotiations, relating differently to boys and girls, trying to understand gender stereotypes, leadership roles, problem-solving skills, strategies to win, empathise with a losing group or individual player, giving up our victory to sit by the side of the lost player and put an around their shoulder … Those spaces, moments and relationships were precious. Those experiences were genuine, essential for our development as social beings. Even a quiet kid in the group would gain so much just by watching and observing.
Playing outdoors in the nature with peers amongst ample greenery is proven to be healthy – socially, physically and mentally. There is plenty of research available now on how beneficial it is for our wellness and well-being. Besides encouraging children to engage in free play, playing outdoors and in the woods needs to be viewed as more creative and imaginative. Northern European countries have set an example in getting their children out for a play, with frequent breaks, during school time. Several schools in the United Kingdom have ‘Forest School’ programme once a week; some other countries are introducing nature-connected experiences for school children during school time.
However, playing outdoors and in the nature with peers, every single day, must not become another curriculum or a planned lesson during school time only. It must not be yet another adult-designed and controlled activity. It is a child’s right to play unstructured games freely, learning experientially and living their days moving around happily, breathing fresh air and connecting with nature.
My informal chats with primary school children in different countries across three continents have affirmed children’s preference to be outdoors, to climb a tree, to explore freely and just to be in the nature for individual and collective experiences that they purely own themselves. However, the absolute focus on ‘preparing children as future citizens contributing to the nation’s progress (economy?)’ has shaped childhood differently. With all the awareness, information, choices and ongoing research about the benefits of outdoor play on health, well-being and wellness, we still see children doing homework, sitting with electronic screen and/or spending time with adults. The television series ‘Junk Food Kids’ will very soon lead to ‘Lonely Kids Indoors’ with newer social, mental and physical health problems.
Let’s listen to children; redesign school curriculum; create living educational spaces. We need sustainable, well and happy communities.
Cheers, Vinathe Sharma