Aug 3, 2014

Let Them Play!

Linda Wellings has spent the past 22 years as an early childhood educator at Shelburne Farms, and currently serves as the Director of School Programs. Her unofficial title is Facilitator of Wonder. Prior to this, she taught preschool, Head Start and kindergarten in Ohio.

Let Them Play!

Asking an early childhood educator from Shelburne Farms to write about play can only lead to a conversation about play in the natural world. Play and exploration, usually in the forests, fields or farmyard, are the mainstay of our early childhood program. 

What does that look like? Here’s a sample:
At our outdoor camp for 3, 4 and 5 year olds this summer, several boys chose to be face-painted as bobcats. Jack led the “pack.” “Follow me to our den,” he whispered. Off they scampered up the hill to sit by a tree. Dylan picked up a downed branch and pretended to chew, telling the others, “Hmm, this is a good rabbit I’m eating for dinner.” Others mimicked him. Suddenly, down the hill one of the lookout bobcats yelled, “Humans!” Several adults were walking by on the trail. All the bobcats vanished, blending into their surroundings, flat on their bellies in the leaves, until the humans passed.

Behind simple acts of play like this, important development is taking place. The earliest years are a critical time for cognitive, physical, social and emotional development in children—and play impacts all of those capacities.

Time spent outdoors has particular benefits for children, as research affirms:

  • Exposure to nature can reduce stress levels by as much as 28% in children.
  • Outdoor exercise improves mental and physical well-being more so than indoor activities.
  • Children who spend more time outdoors are less likely to be overweight by 27-41%.
  • Time spent outdoors is predicative of higher levels of physical activity in children.
  • Outdoor exercise can be an important coping tool for ADD/ADHD.

I’ve personally witnessed preschool kids and classes transform as they embrace outdoor play. Just the other morning, I enjoyed a visit from eight King Street Center preschoolers. The children exited the bus with high energy, running and screaming while we tried to corral them for their next adventure. As we began our hike into the woods, there were a few shrieks as children spotted daddy long legs crawling over logs, but as the exploration continued, the dynamics of the group subtly changed. Everyone became engaged in looking for life under the logs. Children picked up worms and shared the care of a red eft salamander. The most rambunctious of the group gently held the salamander, using his most quiet voice and offering to show it to others. All had become immersed in the rhythm of the woods.

In general, the activities of “play” offer benefits in all areas of development. The National Association for the Education of Young Children strongly supports play for all children, birth to eight:

“Play gives children opportunities to understand the world, interact with others in social ways, express and control emotions, and develop their symbolic capabilities. … Play provides a context for children to practice newly acquired skills and also to function on the edge of their developing capacities to take on new social roles, attempt novel or challenging tasks, and solve complex problems that they would not (or could not) otherwise do.”

Children express and represent their ideas, thoughts, and feelings when engaged in symbolic play. A child can learn to deal with emotions, to interact with others, to resolve conflicts, and to gain a sense of competence—all in the safety that only play affords. 

Through play, children also can develop their imaginations and creativity. Therefore, child-initiated, teacher-supported play is an essential component of developmentally-appropriate practice.

All of this research is compelling, but facilitating and witnessing the play is the most rewarding of all. Watching young children learning through play—gaining curiosity and self-confidence as they interact with their environment, developing social skills as they communicate with other children, and testing boundaries by experimenting—brings joy and wonder to all involved.

Photos by Vera Chang.

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