Taking Back Free Play



Photos by Kimera Basore

Educator Krista Baker believes outdoor play is as vital to a child as learning to read and she’s not alone. After teaching in Putnam City Schools, Baker now homeschools her two daughters and two of her daily priorities for her kindergartner are reading and playing outside. With a focus on free play, Baker has noted her daughter’s growing creativity, calmer demeanor and enhanced confidence.

“Imaginative play is more vital for a child’s future than many parents and educators realize,” Baker said.

Baker left the teaching profession, in part, because she was dismayed by the focus on standardized testing, diminishing creative exploration allowed educators and emphasis on early academic achievement, like learning to read in kindergarten. She said the lack of spontaneity and open-ended play in early childhood can affect a child’s development. The American Academy of Pediatrics even links increases in depression and anxiety to a lack of unstructured playtime.

“In today’s world, our children are accustomed to manufactured toys with defined purposes, television and film that present someone else’s imagination, computers that use other people’s programs and classes in dance or sports in which someone instructs them in what to do,” said Baker.

The AAP reports that when play is controlled by adults, like in organized sports, they lose the benefits of developing creativity, leadership and group skills. Melinda Miller, assistant director of the City of Oklahoma City’s Parks and Recreation Department, agrees when children are constantly told what to do and how to behave, their curiosity and sense of self can’t develop as fully as when they play freely.

“They aren’t given the opportunity to understand their own abilities or strengths,” said Miller. “Kids need to learn to explore and ask questions about nature.”

With a minor in reading instruction, Baker also has spent time leading the Metropolitan Library System’s reading program and a particular episode at an after-school program has stuck with her. While reading a story about a little girl playing in the mud, Baker paused to engage the children by asking who had ever played in the mud to raise their hand. Not a single child did.

“It was shocking to me,” said Baker. “A lot of children have lost a sense of wonder. Giving children a chance to play in nature and get dirty helps them thrive.”

Effects of Diminishing Time Outdoors

Coined by author Rich Louv, of “Last Child in the Woods,” the term Nature Deficit Disorder explains the issues associated with children spending less time outdoors. Although the AAP declares children’s physical and mental health requires at least 60 minutes of unstructured, outdoor play daily, only six percent of kids ages 9 to 13 play outside on their own in a typical week.

Children’s time outdoors has decreased by half in the last 20 years, while the AAP reports 8-to-10-year-olds spend up to eight hours a day in front of a screen and some teens spend nearly 11 hours on screen time. Perhaps most alarming, the Dirt is Good global study found, on average, children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates, with inmates receiving at least two hours outside daily and children less than an hour.

“If you’ve been deprived of [experiences in nature] in your childhood, you’ve lost a window of time,” said Myriad Botanical Gardens Executive Director Maureen Heffernan. “Those impressions and experiences can set a seed in you that blooms later in life and lets you have a richer life.”

A 2006 study in the Journal of Children, Youth and Environments found one of the greatest implications for caring for the environment as an adult was participation in wild nature activities before age 11. In addition to an understanding of and empathy for the world around them, children who play outdoors regularly gain problem-solving skills, focus and self-discipline. Improvements in physical health and less tendency toward obesity, learning abilities, creativity and mental, psychological and emotional well-being were noted in a recent University of Essex study.

“A child’s entire cognitive self is stimulated by outdoor play,” said Miller. “Children’s behavior is improved significantly, as well as their sense of self, self-confidence and self-awareness. Engaging in play from 15 to 30 minutes can decrease anxiety, episodes of ADHD and severity of symptoms for Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

Although the importance of outdoor free play is widely recognized, Louv reports in his book that 30 percent of school-aged children in the nation get less than 15 minutes of recess per day, while many schools have canceled recess altogether.

Patricia Hocker, retired from 40 years spent in education and administration in Oklahoma, said the pressures of testing and accountability are to blame for a reduction in recess in our state, but she knows from experience that outdoor free play is instrumental in a child’s development.

“Interaction with peers in an unstructured environment teaches children how to get along with others,” said Hocker. “Even organized recess games like kickball give them the opportunity to learn cooperation and teamwork.”

When Hocker was an administrator, her school started an outdoor classroom, complete with vegetable and butterfly gardens, that gave inner city children in particular an opportunity to connect with nature for the first time. As a current supervisor for student teachers at the University of Central Oklahoma, Hocker is pleased to see more Oklahoma schools offering students an outdoor classroom, planting a garden or working with parents to start a community garden. She said while the teaching students she works with understand the benefit of free and outdoor play, they don’t know how, or if, they can implement it in the school day.

“There’s a real awareness of it,” said Hocker, “but it’s so hard because of the expectations for high academic achievement.”

Nature Play at Home

Nearly four out of five parents believe children aren’t getting enough physical playtime, according to surveys by Playworks and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Because kids aren’t always getting it in their school day, parents may feel pressured to incorporate more play time at home, a charge that can feel daunting with everything on the schedule of a typical family.

Baker feels fortunate to have the freedom to incorporate outdoor play in her daughters’ educations and to have easy access to nature. While not every family has the same opportunities, she said parents can try simple things to incorporate outdoor play in their schedule.

“Don’t overwhelm yourself by attempting to become that family that goes camping every weekend,” said Baker. “Be realistic with your lifestyle and start small.”

Baker has a set schedule of outdoor time every week, making it routine for her family. While dinner is cooking, her family enjoys a few minutes outside together. On Saturday mornings before chores and errands, they take a walk. Hocker said while the act of exercise itself is important, pointing out changes in nature or gathering items, like fallen leaves, to bring home and study together can extend learning for the whole family. Enjoying nature doesn’t always have to be active but can be as simple as looking up at the stars, watching the sun rise or set or reading outdoors.

For families without personal green spaces, the city of Oklahoma City is home to more than 160 parks. Heffernan said the Myriad Botanical Gardens offers both accessibility to the outdoors and to a diverse range of community members who might not otherwise interact.

“We have a lot of families that have a tradition of walking together in the evenings,” said Heffernan. “Often people in modern society are so self-segregating by income or education or race, but the community really gathers here to meet other kinds of people.”

Outdoor time provides relational benefits to parents and children. Although Baker multi-tasks throughout her day, her children know on their walks she is totally present with them. She incorporates learning and free outdoor play with her older daughter’s nature journal, where she draws or records what she sees in their back yard or on walks.

“She notices the smallest things,” said Baker. “She’ll find a berry on a bush, describe the color and shape, and then take me to see it. It’s a world of creativity that she wouldn’t be able to hone if she hadn’t had the opportunity to freely explore.”

While her daughter is playing, Baker often works in her garden, both because she enjoys it and she believes it’s important for children to see active examples of the behavior parents want them to emulate.

“If you make it a priority for yourself, your children will do the same,” said Baker. “We can help them build a healthy way of living that can carry them their entire lives.”

For families feeling too harried to add outdoor time into their routines, limiting extracurricular activities for parents and children alike can help. The Journal of Marriage and Family reports children’s discretionary time has declined 16 percent since 1981, and free time is spent more and more in structured activities.

By keeping extracurriculars to a minimum, building in downtime, simplifying or scheduling time outdoors, Miller said parents will see improvements in their own stress levels, not to mention cognitive benefits for their children.

Nature Play in the Community

By the 1990s, the radius around the home where children were allowed to play on their own was only a ninth of what it had been 20 years prior, according to Louv. Parents today recall time spent unattended outdoors in their own childhoods but may not allow the same freedom to their children, with safety identified as the biggest barrier to children’s independent play. Oklahoma City programs and parks have recognized the need to provide safe spaces for outdoor play, as well as instruction and encouragement for parents who may need to relearn how to play like a child.

Inspiring unstructured play was a priority in the development of the Children’s Garden in the Myriad Botanical Gardens. The playground equipment is unique and intentionally open-ended, encouraging imagination.

The Myriad’s Crystal Bridge, home to 750 varieties of plants and two distinct climate zones, offers endless educational opportunities, as do year-round gardening and cooking classes for children. The Myriad’s skate rink opens Nov. 10 and curling programs for all levels will return for the holidays and an obstacle course on the great lawn will celebrate the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Another favorite metro-area park will reveal a remodeled visitor center late this year. Martin Nature Park is located between two ecosystems in Oklahoma—the cross timbers region to the east and the grass prairies to the east—and the new center will better explain why these regions are so important to the city and how people have impacted the ecosystem. The center’s popular native animals, like snakes, turtles and fish, will once again be on display.

“We have more interpretive panels and hands-on displays for kids,” said Miller. “Homeschool teachers and parents will love it because it now encompasses an entire social studies lesson.”

When the center opens, it will again host Saturday morning craft and story time for young children. Led nature hikes are ongoing, the nature-inspired playground remains open, and fall break camps will teach children about Oklahoma’s ecosystems and how to take care of the environment.

Early childhood learning opportunities in nature are also offered through Tinkergarten, where young participants learn focus, self-control, self-reliance, problem-solving, imagination and empathy through playful activities. Children might make stone soup to feed to a tree, “paint” with ingredients found in nature or build dens for stuffed animals to hibernate.

“I’m a trained teacher but I still went into the class learning,” said Baker, a Tinkergarten facilitator. “I never would have thought to do something this simple with my children.”

The biggest takeaway for Baker’s girls was their enhanced environmentalism. Baker’s oldest daughter began to refer to their rose bushes as her “pets,” noting when they were thirsty.

“Children love to take care of things,” said Baker. “They learn if we don’t take care of Mother Earth, there are consequences.”

Hocker is encouraging a love of nature, too, through the Oklahoma Gardeners Association’s new set of classrooms throughout the  metro. She uses the classrooms to teach children in kindergarten through middle school how nature impacts the world. The programs are offered free to schools, after-school programs and community or civic groups for children, providing take-home materials to teachers or program directors to incorporate in future lessons. The Association’s butterfly program is popular in the springtime and has even prompted some local schools to plant milkweed or create their own butterfly gardens so students can continue to watch nature at work.

Closing the Nature Deficit

As Baker’s oldest daughter repeatedly passed a tree on their routine walks, she decided she wanted to learn how to climb it. She began to devise a plan for her climb, and when she conquered that tree, she moved on to another, building independence and confidence in her problem-solving abilities.

Hocker said it’s developmental benefits like these which children often don’t get elsewhere, that should drive educators, caregivers and parents alike to be bold about making free and outdoor play a priority, especially in early childhood. Miller agreed.

“Our children are hyper-scheduled, and they are constantly fed excitement or activity,” said Miller. “They become stressed because they don’t understand downtime and they don’t know how to entertain themselves or just be bored.”

Children are born with a strong impulse to play. When they are given the time and space to use their imaginations fully in free and outdoor play, their social, emotional and physical selves all benefit.

“They tend to be more harmonious and less aggressive, and they show a better understanding of other people,” said Baker. “The more they are allowed to be absorbed in their play, the more fully and effectively they will later take their place in the community as adults.”

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