“Is it okay for me to do, move, and act as I do?”
This is a summative question that children, between the ages of 3 and 6 years old, continue to ask themselves. It’s also a period when children will initiate tasks and look to their caregivers’ faith and encouragement. A safe, reassuring caregiver allows children to feel comfortable about the way they approach a variety of things, be it mental, physical, or emotional (Ainsworth, 1979).
As children forge new relationships with their peers they are also beginning to recognize where their will and your expectations intersect and where they unravel. Essentially, they are incredibly curious about what we as caregivers approve and disapprove of. This is an important indication of their awareness of their relationship with you and the world around them. And, while it’s a continual process, your encouragement and opportunities for child-directed play will allow them to explore and discover more about themselves while fostering their sense of initiative and purpose.
This was my experience at a Pop-Up Adventure Playground. Pop-up Adventure Playgrounds are free and celebrate the importance of child-directed play. They are stocked with cardboard boxes, fabric, tape, and string, and staffed by Play Workers who welcome children of all ages to abilities to play together. Pop-up Adventure Playgrounds are also characterized mainly by one tenet: children aren’t told how to play. The rich history of these Adventure Playgrounds reveals a child-centered philosophy; children need to play, and they have always known how to play. Here, play is defined as anything done with no imposed goal in mind, anything done purely for enjoyment (Wilson, 2010).
Play v. Activity:
The rampant “adulteration” of play often means children are involved in highly supervised, pre-defined, goal-oriented activities. Think: birdhouse building kits, organized sports leagues, or board games with rulebooks. Although those examples can be play for some, they are more “activities” than “play.” Think of dribbling a soccer ball because you love to chase it, and you aren’t even feeling the time pass. Now think of playing in a game, people yelling and tracking scores and, afterwards, reviewing what needs to be done better. The first example is play and the second example is an activity. One is for pleasure, one is for product.
Kids learn different skills from play than they do from activities, and there’s a time for both. What’s concerning is the lack of access to true child-directed play. That is, real time and space for kids to engage with enjoyment, follow their instincts, and experience the freedom of childhood.
Although most adults have the best of intentions, there are times we undervalue what children feel compelled to do. This amplifies a child’s sense that it’s not okay for her to move and act as she feels. But, as children arrived at the Pop-Up Adventure Playground, I found myself encouraging the opposite.
My supervisor and fellow volunteers had arrived to a big empty field and unloaded giant cardboard boxes, ribbon, fabric, markers, Frisbees, tubes, tape, and bundles of other seemingly random parts. We organized them for easy access, set up some basic structures, and waited.
As parents and children walked towards us, they would ask, “What is this?”
“It’s a Pop-Up Adventure Playground!” We said.
With the parent’s permission, we then looked directly at the child and said, “You can do whatever you want with the materials here.” In other words, “It’s okay for you to do, move, act as you do.” I can assure you the children needed very little guidance after that.
Watch & Notice:
I watched as children gathered and constructed with eagerness and intention. I watched as those seemingly random parts took on whole new lives in the hands of children. I watched as children played alone, with each other, and as groups.
Children didn’t need me to tell them how to play. They needed me to cut a box, to show them where the string was, or help them balance a stick while they glued. This realization played over and over in my head. My knee-jerk reaction to impose in the name of “facilitating” play was unnecessary, so I stopped myself and took joy in watching the children play as they do. I was there when needed, but mostly I enjoyed the creativity I witnessed.
As a former teacher and a nanny I’m often organizing for kids, monitoring actions, or intervening to ensure progress. As a volunteer, I was watching to ensure safety, but mostly I said, “Yes!”
“Yes, take that giant piece of foam.”
“Yes, try to balance that on top.”
“Yes, make your dragon noise even louder!”
By invitation – and only by invitation – I was entering their world instead of assuming and ensuring they would enter mine. As the evening went on, it was evident all the kids wanted to stay. They asked to take their creations home, they delighted in the leftover boxes. I sensed that it was relieving for them too, to be able to take up space and enjoy its fullness.
Fostering initiative in children is a delicate task for parents and child caregivers, and no one will always do it gracefully. During that evening, I had moments where I really wanted to intervene because a child was doing something I saw as inefficient or unnecessary. However, instead of acting on it, I took a deep breath and let them be. Demonstrating our confidence in children often involves standing back and trusting. Trusting, simultaneously and alternatively, that a child is strong enough for the fullness of achievement and failure, for joy and pain. Play isn’t always pretty, neat or pleasant. But giving permission to engage in the fullness, to trust that kids would figure it out, was powerful for them and me.
Children look to parents and child caregivers for affirmation: I see you and I believe in you as you strive to integrate your internal self into the external world. I don’t have all the answers, but I will care for you and support you as you are.
Take time to recognize:
When do you see children most engaged?
When do you see children doubting themselves?
When can you model self-confidence, and when can you narrate your own apprehension?
I loved basking in the Pop-Up Adventure Playground and knowing that this space held children in all their natural, expansive wonder. I want children to be embraced for their wholeness like this more often. So let’s agree to say “Yes” to ourselves as we cautiously seek places and people who will encourage children to be fully themselves. And, let’s agree to let children loudly roar like dragons more often, too.