Restoring Children’s Play: Creating Places for Social Play

Part two: overcoming the social isolation society has imposed on children.

By Peter Gray Ph.D. Freedom to Learn

Children are suffering today from too much adult structuring of their activities and not enough freedom to play and explore in their own chosen ways (for some of the evidence, see herehere, and here).

A few weeks ago, I posted an essay in which I asked readers to present ideas about how to restore children’s independent outdoor play in today’s world. I focused on outdoor play because it offers the opportunities for vigorous physical exercise, exciting adventures, and escape from adult interference that our children today most sorely need.

The ideas presented in response to that survey fell into three general categories: (1) ways for parents to overcome their own misgivings and fears about their children’s independent outdoor play; (2) ways to enable children to find other children with whom to play; and (3) ways to work at the community or state level to overcome societal barriers to children’s freedom.

I have chosen to write separate essays dealing with each of these categories. The first was posted (here) a couple of weeks ago. Now, here is the second essay in the series.

When I was a kid, many decades ago, there was no problem finding playmates. All I had to do was go outside. In those days, as was true almost everywhere throughout most of human history, kids from about age 5 on up were free to play and roam outdoors, independently of adults, to their hearts’ content. In fact, many parents pushed their kids outdoors to get them out of their hair.

But now, for all the reasons I’ve discussed previously, children are pretty much stuck indoors or, if outdoors, they are being directed and supervised by adults in ways that preclude free play and exploration.

More than almost anything else, children want to play with other children, away from adult control. If your child is free to go outdoors but others are not, then, quite reasonably, your child will come back inside or get onto a smartphone to interact with friends in the only way that is possible in the socially isolating world we have forced upon children.

To enable children to play in the physical, real world we need to find ways to bring them together, in spaces that are safe enough to meet the demands of today’s highly protective parents, but, at the same time, sufficiently free from adult control that real play is possible. Here is a list of possibilities, some of which include quotes from readers who responded to the survey.

Outdoor preschools and forest kindergartens. While most preschools and kindergartens have been wrong-headedly and even cruelly reducing play and increasing “academics” (such an odd word to apply to little children), a few have moved sharply in the other direction.

In response to the survey, Lisa wrote: “I co-own an outdoor preschool on a farm in MA that provides young children the time, space and community for growing and learning outside, on the farm and in the forest in all weather. While our days have rhythm and routine, the children spend the majority of their time exploring, creating, observing…on their own and with friends.

The forest kindergarten movement, which has a long history in Europe, is beginning to take hold in the United States. In these kindergartens, children and the staff are outdoors regardless of the weather and the children play and explore freely every day. For one example in the U.S., see here). Maybe you can help get one started near where you live. Wouldn’t it be great if school districts began to offer outdoor kindergartens as a free option for any family who chooses it?

Adventure playgrounds. Like forest kindergartens, adventure playgroundsgot their start many years ago in Europe, but are now beginning to appear increasingly in the United States. These are fenced off outdoor areas where children are free to create their own play, and even to play in ways that adults deem risky. Children may engage in such activities as climbing trees, building fires, having stick fights, and using tools, nails, and old boards to build forts or whatever they wish.

An earlier name for such playgrounds was “junk playgrounds,” because they are equipped with junk that children love to play with and make things with. A defining feature that makes such playgrounds acceptable to parents is the presence of one or more playworkers, who are trained to be present without intervening in play unless there is clear danger. At most adventure playgrounds parents are not welcome within the play area, because of the realization that even well-intentioned parents often cannot help but interfere in their children’s play.

Here is an adventure playground in New York City, and here is a group working to build one in Boston. Wouldn’t it be great if there were such a playground within walking distance for every child? There is no reason, economically, why that should not be possible.

Camps where kids structure their own time. When I was in my late teens, in the 1960s, I worked as a waterfront director in summer camps. Those camps—as was true for many if not most summer camps in those days—were primarily places for free play. Campers could swim or use the canoes any time I was manning the waterfront (which was about five hours each day), or they could roam and play anywhere else on the campgrounds whenever they chose. I and other camp personnel offered instruction when kids asked for it, but otherwise, we let them figure things out on their own, which is almost always what kids prefer.

Today camps, like nearly all the other places we put kids into, are largely places where children spend most of their time doing what adults tell them to do. They are not much different from schools. But there are some encouraging trends in the opposite direction. Here, for example, is a camp that opened up two or three years ago explicitly as a place where children are free, trusted, and respected. It has experienced great success. Nearly all kids who go there one year want to go back the next. We need more camps like this one. For unschoolers, a great opportunity lies in Not Back to School Camp, with sites in Oregon and Vermont.

Schools as places for play. One of my own favorite potential solutions to the play problem, for which I advocate whenever I have the chance, is that schools open up for free play during those hours between the end of the school day and the time when parents are home from work.

This would solve not only the play problem but also the babysitting problem that plagues so many families today. Nearly the entire school could be available for play—the outdoor playground, gymnasium, swimming pool if there is one, art rooms, computer room. Children in all grades would be free to play together (unlike at recess), and age-mixed play is generally far more exciting and enriching than same-age play.

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