When I joined the Free Play Matters Task Force last year I was elated at the opportunity. I listened, talked with friends, participated in meetings, shared on social media, and finally decided I needed to take my own action and lead by example. As the 2017 school year drew to an end I decided to invite a few of the children on our bus loop over for a play date after school. My plan? Get rid of all the boxes I had accumulated over the last several months. I added in markers, tape and scissors along with other loose parts like various-sized foam packing pieces and fillers. I also added a tree stump painting station, giant Jenga, some jump ropes, and balls.
The play started with lots of running through the trail and onto the zipline. An abundance of excited voices and laughter carried across the yard as they each found their way and figured out how to secure the zipline in the right position so they could jump on and be whisked across the yard. They ran, jumped and used their full bodies to experience and enjoy their play. I hid on the deck behind the bushes trying to take photos. I was determined to stay in the shadows and not get involved.
Next, they moved as a group to play giant Jenga. They took the time to consider each choice and coached each other on which block should come out next. They circled, they shouted “No, not that block. Choose this one!” and “Oh, you got so lucky it didn’t fall down.” They worked together and 20 minutes later the blocks all came crashing down and the game ended with happy children. I saw them staring at the boxes and took a deep breath.
They circled a bit and tried to make sense of what they were seeing. Then someone shouted, “We can pretend it’s a vampire coffin!!” One child jumped in and the others closed her in but they couldn’t quite figure out how to keep the box closed. I watched and fought to keep my mouth shut but the teacher in me reacted and shouted across the yard, “Use the tape!”
They pulled long pieces off the roles and started to tape the box together. All was going well except one child did not participate. He was still circling the boxes. “Can I make a book?” he asked. “Sure! You can use anything you see here,” I said. All he needed was permission. He needed to know he could follow his own ideas.
From this point forward, the children flowed in and out of creating with the boxes, painting in another area of the yard, or picking up the balls and playing catch. Sometimes they played in groups of two, sometimes in groups of three, and sometimes they were deeply immersed in creating a personal piece. I was there when they needed me but gone when they didn’t. This play went on for three hours.
As we continue to explore the possibilities and benefits of play for the children in our community, I believe that it will take a collective effort for us to move forward. Play is the work of children and it is a vital part of the growing and learning process. Open-ended play experiences and materials like boxes, blocks, and loose parts provide endless opportunities for children to not only construct their own learning but also develop essential skills they need to succeed in life. While society puts a heavy emphasis on academics, the truth is there is nothing that is more important than each child’s social and emotional development. Possessing a strong sense of self, the ability to problem solve, collaborate, self-regulate, have empathy and make decisions are fostered through play.
Rosalie Witt, co-chair
Free Play Matters Task Force