Creating a Rich Environment: The Role of the Adult in Children’s Play

by Melissa Harding

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“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Do you remember the games that you used to play as a child? Pretending to be princesses, cowboys, explorers with your friends; turning a pile of blocks into a city or using a stick as a sword; making up ridiculous rules for pretend games. Many of us have fond memories of playing with friends and family, as well as alone – it doesn’t take much effort to think back to those fun times we all had as children. There is a reason for that; playing is one of the most important developmental tasks of early childhood. It turns out that all the time you spent pretending to be a monster is key to who you are today. Long, uninterrupted blocks of time spent playing – by yourself and with your peers – are what allowed you to develop into a successful adult and are what will help your children do the same.

Play is a purposeful experience for children and very gratifying, something that they love to do and find endlessly absorbing. Children employ themselves very seriously in the act of play. At the same time, play is a bit of a paradox; it is both serious and silly, real and pretend, apparently purposeless yet absolutely essential. So what is play? One of the commonly accepted definitions of play is something that is: intrinsically motivated, controlled by the players, about process rather than product, non literal, free of any externally imposed rules, and  actively engages the players. To ask a child, it means the absence of adults and the presence of peer or friends.

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There are many forms of play that develop at different rates in different children. Most very young children start off with sensory or exploratory play – touching, mouthing, feeding themselves – and add other forms of play as they develop. In fact, playing itself helps children to build upon their skills and develop into new kinds of play. Learning is integrated in play and largely unseen to most adults. Play has an intrinsic value because this learning is child-directed and takes place without direct teaching. It develops the foundation of intellectual, social, physical, and emotional skills necessary for success. Building with blocks can lay the foundation for mathematical and scientific thinking; rough-housing develops social and emotional self-regulation; pretend play creates communication and conversation skills. As they develop skills in play, children begin to have greater creativity and flexibility in thinking. Play has even been cited as having  a positive influence on literacy. Learning and development go hand-in-hand with play, each an inseparable dimension of the other. Clearly, play is powerful stuff.

IMG_0371Children are quite happy to play on their own and to play with anything handy. However, there is a great deal that parents can do to support play:

1. Create a culture of play: Play needs time and space; give your child ample time to play on their own and with friends. A long, uninterrupted period of 45-60 minutes is the recommended minimum amount of time to support free-play.
2. Provide a variety of materials for play: “Loose parts” encourage children to manipulate the environment around them. These can be things found in nature, such as sticks and acorns, or build materials like blocks and clay. A mix of both kinds is best. Other useful items are dress-up clothes, art supplies, construction toys and balls for motor play.
3. Create a playful environment: Adults can help to set the stage, creating and maintaining an environment conducive to play. This can be something like providing a great location (going to the park, building a tree house or a fort) or as simple as great materials.
4. Allow some calculated risk-taking: Some risks (i.e. climbing trees or walking on logs) are appropriate and some are not; this is for you to judge as a parent. However, challenge and risk-taking is important to the developing confidence and gross-motor skills. Consider allowing your child to take some calculated risks.
5. Be OK with a mess: Play can be messy, muddy and a little rough. Accept the mess; your kids will love it.
6. Take an interest: Attentive adults can help redirect play when children get frustrated and result in longer, more complex episodes of play. Be a responsive watcher on occasion and become a co-player and role model, not a director.

There is also an emerging body of evidence that supports the power of outdoor play. Nature play is sensory, diverse and challenging. It provides the ideal setting and materials for any game and it’s a great place to make a mess. Full of loose parts, nature is full of elements that can be combined, adapted and manipulated. The rough, uneven surfaces are great for developing physical strength and building confidence. It is also a rich source for fantasy play. If nothing else, let your child play outside. With or without an adult presence, though preferably a little bit of both, outdoor play is a wonderful activity for children.

“Supporting children’s play is more active than simply saying you believe it is important. When children’s play culture is taken seriously, the conditions which make it flourish are carefully created. Children’s play culture does not just happen naturally. Play needs time and space. It needs mental and material simulation to be offered in abundance. Creating a rich play environment means creating good learning environments for children.”  – Marjatta Kalliala, author of Play Culture in a Changing World.

Summer is a great time to be outside. There are flowers to pick, streams to cross and critters to find. Outside is an endless playground – head outside today and help your child create memories to last a lifetime!

To learn more about the power of play and delve deeper into the supporting research, check out Dr. Par Jane Hewes’ excellent article Let the Children Play: Nature’s Answer to Early Learning.

Also, check out The Importance of Play and get practical ideas for creating play-positive environments over at The Imagination Tree.

The above photos were taken by our photography intern, Cory Doman.

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