The Free Range Play Effect

The countless benefits of unstructured play
numerous children in silhouette jumping, running and doing cartwheels outside against a bright green background
© Can Stock Photo / kirstypargeter

Many of us still remember being ejected outside on summer nights as children, away from our parents’ interfering, and not returning until sundown or so. We dangled on rusty swings and plummeted from precarious tree branches and dilapidated monkey bars. As a gymnast it wasn’t unusual to find me hanging by my knees or traveling by handspring, channelling my inner Bionic Woman. Free range play memories--before it even had a name--now make for hilarious memes that express surprise about surviving hose-water ingestion.

Fast forward to recent decades…

Free range play is perceived as the antithesis of “safety”. Playgrounds have been sanitized if not eliminated, panic ensues if a ten year-old doesn’t answer her cell phone, and recess has been reduced to a brief interlude in which there is barely time to organize a game, let alone play one. Extinguishing the scantest prospect of a boo-boo has rendered playtime into a nanny state where throwing a snowball or playing tag could land you in detention.

Here, we’re exploring the relationship between free range play, imagination & cognitive development, and the concept of risk. Physical activities (tag, hide and seek, or swinging) and imaginative play (“house” or “zoo-keeper”), physical growth, and meaningful learning emerge as not disparate events, but as possibly inextricable.

Avoiding risk-aversion

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I -
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
- Robert Frost

Risk-aversion is a well-intentioned trend meant to protect our children at all costs. Read all costs. But sweeping, overzealous, and short-sighted risk-reduction policies have unintended consequences that live well beyond a scraped knee or even a broken leg. These can be examined within the well-documented frame of playground management. In the UK, for instance, there have been bans on everything from running in the playground to the size of the frills on socks (!) for fear of tripping. The death of a girl who fell on a recycled wooden railway tie in the playground and lacerated her liver helped inspire a movement to ban the children’s game of British Bulldog in schools. In No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, Tim Gill cautions us to beware that promotion of ‘safety first’ does not

… drive out the opportunities children should have for experiment and development; and that our desire to defend young people against some very real dangers does not lead us into a sanitised world in which creativity and personal growth are stifled.

He cites the work of David Ball, Professor of Risk Management at Middlesex University, who has found that by any standard, playgrounds are statistically safe environments compared to many other acceptable activities. Moreover, despite the expanding policies that govern playground structures and behaviours, Ball finds no clear evidence of decline in equipment-related injuries:

Playground risk is extremely small in terms of fatalities, and in terms of lesser injuries far lower than for most traditional sports which children are encouraged to engage in, and in any case about the same as the risk encountered at home.

The chances of being killed in a playground accident are exceedingly low. Statistics, especially recent ones, are difficult to pin down but an internet search yielded varied results such as: from 1992 to 1995 there were 2 playground deaths per year in Canada (Safe Kids Canada. Child and Youth Unintentional Injury: 1994-2003: 10 Years in Review, 2006); between 1982 and 1999 there were 18 deaths (Product Safety Bureau, Health Canada). Despite these rates, it’s those infrequent tragedies that often beget unexamined bans and restrictions. In Gill’s opinion,

…the plea to adopt the point of view of the victims or the bereaved cannot help but lead to excessively risk averse responses to tragedy. Such a plea…is a request that we adopt the bereaved’s inevitably revised value system. If we were always required to see the world through the eyes of the most unlucky, then we would always choose zero risk.

But we can’t just permit kids to be unruly, unstructured and unsupervised, can we? Remember Lord of the Flies? A school in Auckland has some first-hand knowledge of the results of abandoning playground regulations. In an attempt to encourage active play, Swanson School signed on for a study being done by AUT and Otago University where playtime rules were completely discarded. Rather than the expected chaos, what seems to have happened was that kids became so engrossed in the business of play, they “forgot” to misbehave. Mind blown. Their principal was gratified:

Mudslides, skateboarding, bullrush and tree climbing kept the children so occupied the school no longer needed a timeout area or as many teachers on patrol…The kids were motivated, busy and engaged. In my experience, the time children get into trouble is when they are not busy, motivated and engaged. It’s during that time they bully other kids, graffiti or wreck things around the school.

We asked Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods and The Nature Principle, about how to approach the issue of supervision and the potential for injury:

The idea is to make the risks manageable or acceptable…If we want our children or grandchildren to experience nature, we’ll need to be more proactive than parents of past generations. Be a hummingbird parent. As one parent says, “I tend to stay physically distant to let them explore and problem solve, but zoom in at moments when safety is an issue (which isn’t very often).” Teach your child to watch for behaviors more than for strangers. Create a play-watch group and ask fellow parents to sit on front stoops or porches or lawns several hours a week; that way, they are available at a distance as children play.

Outdoor play reduces stress

Those who play rarely become brittle in the face of stress or lose the healing capacity for humor.
- Stuart Brown, MD & Contemporary American Psychiatrist

Denying kids a chance to swing like monkeys from the rooftops at the price of encouraging couch and screen time as a safer, paler substitute is backfiring. Ongoing investigation into all that device use shows that the more disconnected we become from nature and the outdoors, the higher the rates of depression and attention deficit disorder. Indeed, Louv coined the term “nature deficit disorder.” Though he appreciates the advantages of being adept at technology (avid blogger that he is), he emphasizes that being “connected” should not preclude being connected to the physical world. In a blog post, “The Hybrid Mind,” he says,

The ultimate multitasking is to live simultaneously in both the digital and physical worlds, using computers to maximize our powers to process intellectual data and natural environments to ignite our senses and accelerate our ability to learn and feel…

Exposure to outdoor play in green settings neutralizes the need for the fatiguing voluntary attention required for activities such as video games and promotes all kinds of mental strengths including self-discipline (babbling brooks=“call of nature”=hold it until you get home because walking trails are very public!) and better coping skills. Free range play in natural settings literally nourishes the mind, body, and spirit. The use of undirected attention, or “fascination,” to interact with nature is chemically rejuvenating to the brain which can reduce stress levels, blood pressure and heart rate, and increase activity in the areas of the brain associated with empathy and altruism. Animals play for pleasure when they are not under stress. It stands to reason, then, that a condition for play, even for we human animals, is the absence or reduction of stress. It logically follows that allowing time for robust, unstructured play outdoors is a stress-relieving activity worth encouraging.

A British research study led by Dr. Ian Alcock has shown that families who relocate to live in greener areas experience an immediate and sustained improvement in overall mental health, lasting 3 years on average. I distinctly recall this phenomenon when my former back yard abutted a bay where herons, seals, ducks, and loons abounded. Mental health break at my command. In 2015, the National Collaborating Centre for Environmental Health concluded, “the evidence indicates that exposure to green space may be beneficial to mental health by improving mood and reducing stress and anxiety.”

Free range play and the mind-body connection

Exasperated by your child’s untameable urge to run down all hallways/jump over every dog/splash in every puddle/climb on all the counters? This is not just the impetuousness of youth. The growth between ages 3 and 12 requires vigorous movement to support muscle and organ development, and stimulate the digestive system to increase appetite, ensuring those growing bodies get fed enough, which all enhances the nervous centres of the brain to induce thinking ability and clarity. Yes–the climb-bone’s connected to the…brain-bone…

Treading the line between safety and risk speaks to the frontal lobe executive functions of discovering consequences, choosing good and bad actions and suppressing socially unacceptable behaviours. Testing limits, and sometimes exceeding them, is how children realize what they, as life-living (not just virtual-life-watching) people, are actually capable of, and builds spirited, less fearful adults. See: Unruly, unstructured and unsupervised. Think: physically spontaneous, imaginative, and self-governing.

Nature schools

Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the mountains and the stars up above. Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and flowers on earth. They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education.
- David Polis, Naturalist

Louv notes in his blog that Finland makes great use of outdoor instruction at school AND leads the world in its students’ math and science scores. And you can’t talk about natural play and learning settings without mentioning Sweden, one of the world leaders in outdoor-education practices. One of the premises dear to the nature school approach is the not-so-earth-shattering notion that linking abstract concepts with real life activities and results makes more of an indelible impact than common pedagogical approaches (see Ben Stein’s performance in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for a stark reminder). For example, the Uppsala Nature School offers a lesson in making charcoal pencils:

For this experiment the pupils place pieces of twigs from various deciduous trees in a tin, surrounded by sand, and heat this construction during lunchtime in the campfire. The homemade charcoal pencils will then lead to a lesson about photosynthesis and may end with a discussion about the greenhouse effect or questions about the dust of volcanoes.

(Tip: if you’re not handy at campfire-starting, then definitely don’t re-create the volcano lesson with potassium chlorate and gummy bears–trust me.)

Imagination stimulates cognitive development

Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.
- Einstein

The creation of something new is not accomplished by the intellect but by the play instinct.
- Carl Jung

Quoting Robin Moore, an international authority on natural school design and head of the Natural Learning Initiative in North Carolina, Louv says, “Natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imaginations and serve as the medium of inventiveness and creativity.” Without imagination, we could not think symbolically. We could not predict or wonder, “What if …?” (“…I stick my tongue on that frozen metal pole?” Also, don’t.) The important, serious work of pretending combined with undirected play fosters robust imagination, resilience, and develops intricate and sophisticated communication skills and relationships. Says Louv, “Studies of creativity show that kids who play in natural or naturalized play areas are far more likely to invent their own games, far more likely to play cooperatively.”

In The Future Will Belong to the Nature Smart, Louv cites a 2006 study in Denmark (oh, those savvy Scandinavians!) that concluded:

…outdoor kindergartens were better than indoor schools at stimulating children’s creativity. The researchers reported that 58 percent of children who were in close touch with nature often invented new games; just 16 percent of indoor kindergarten children did.

Turns out that the brain gets quite a cognitive work-out. Linguistic geeks like me will be glad to hear that pretend play can actually benefit language development (Ha ha! You just learned grammar by accident!) by the frequent use of adjectives and the subjunctive and future tense. Playing out scenarios that include different toys and friends develops “theory of mind”–the awareness that our own thoughts are separate from others’–and teaches that different perspectives are possible. Make-believe play enhances the capacity for self-regulation which is comprised of such components as reduced aggression, delayed gratification, civility, and empathy. Early pretend play is also correlated with later creativity. Participation in childhood games about make-believe worlds was more frequently found in Nobel Prize winners and MacArthur Foundation “genius” award recipients than in control participants in the same fields.

Be cautious about being too concerned about bringing up Baby Einstein, however. Academics, like all other skills achieved in play, should be regarded as a by-product of free range play and not its main intention.

Nature as school

Come forth into the light of things,
Let Nature be your teacher.
- William Wordsworth

In An Investigation of the Status of Outdoor Play, Rhonda Clements, currently Program Director and Professor of Graduate Physical Education & Professor of Education at Manhattanville College, found that

When playing outdoors, children grow emotionally and academically by developing an appreciation for the environment, participating in imaginative play, developing initiative, and acquiring an understanding of basic academic concepts such as investigating the property of objects and of how to use simple tools to accomplish a task.

Nature, itself, has always been the most natural, if you will, of schools, teaching us to unconsciously locate and manage ourselves within the physical world. In “The Hybrid Mind,” Louv recounts a conversation:

I once met an instructor who trained young people to become the pilots of cruise ships. He described the two kinds of students he encounters. One grew up mainly indoors, spending hours playing video games and working on computers. These students are quick to learn the ship’s electronics, a useful talent, the instructor explained. The other kind of student grew up spending a lot of time outdoors, often in nature. They, too, have a talent. ‘They actually know where the ship is.’

Similarly, a study by no less than the U.S. Military has found that soldiers who grew up in more rural settings participating in activities like hunting, and also in tough urban communities (no, not like the mall), where multi-sensory alertness was critical, seemed better able to detect roadside bombs and other hazards, presumably because their latent senses were more practiced at being attuned to the environment. To Louv, it is about involving the spectrum of the senses and mental abilities: “Maximum learning usually takes place when more of our senses are engaged.” Louv is critical of the current learning environment which forces us to block out most incoming sensory information in favour of focusing strictly on the visual–an act he accuses of being “the very definition of being less alive.”

More playful playgrounds

Great things are done when men and mountains meet. This is not done by jostling in the street.
- William Blake

If we agree that allowing boisterous, free range outdoor activity is a sensible approach, who is creating the environments that are conducive to it, especially where natural settings are scarce? Louv is also Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus of the Children and Nature Network, created “…to encourage and support the people and organizations working to reconnect children with nature.” Their vision includes “…an international children and nature movement focused on education, urban design, architecture, conservation, public health and many other disciplines.”

Earth Day Canada runs several programs designed to introduce unstructured play to children, especially in urban areasEarthPLAY is divided into three areas: SchoolPLAY, StreetPLAY, and ParkPLAY. Their mission statement:

Earth Day Canada believes outdoor play is the foundation of environmental education and action. We’ve been working hard to put self-directed outdoor play back into the lives of children as a natural part of their day-to-day lives by addressing play provision in schools, parks, streets and community green spaces.

The Child and Nature Alliance of Canada is also a wonderful resource for connecting to existing programs and services. Fun fact: if you’re into Can-Art idol worship, Robert Bateman is an Honourary Chair. Yes, yes–surprise! Louv is too.

Greening of playgrounds is an undertaking that can simultaneously offer diverse physical activity opportunities, invite open-ended play, and inspire thoughtful endeavours like garden tending (in my case, interminable weeding). In 2008, the Toronto Catholic District School Board commissioned Evergreen, an organization that aims to deepen the connection between people and nature, to develop guidelines and standards for greening school grounds.

Evergreen's child-centred approach

Make design decisions with an understanding of children, children’s play, and the importance of play in learning and development. Take the following into account:

Flexibility

Design spaces that are suggestive, not prescriptive. Ensure flexibility in use is possible.

Playfulness 

Build in a sense of playfulness, aesthetics and creativity. Express this through both the overall design and in detail through the use of colour, pattern and texture.

Scale

Scale spaces to be child-oriented and aim for a sense of intimacy…take advantage of the spatial quality, sense of place and shade created by existing trees.

Diversity

Encourage diversity by creating different spaces and distinct places within the school ground. Create landmarks that function as distinct meeting and playing places for children. Avoid mass repetition of the same feature.

Don’t forget to avoid mass repetition of the same feature.

Make play an intentional act

And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair.
- Kahlil Gibran

For the first ten or so years of their lives, my daughters were not festooned with the latest gadgetry at every upgrade. Their favourite toys were dirt and fiercely loved stuffed animals that went inside, outside, and literally upside down with them. The yard often resembled a Wiccan altar, with elaborate structures of sticks, mud and flower petals, possibly with a teddy bear sitting atop, gazing thoughtfully. They favoured things that allowed them to incorporate original scenarios into an ad-libbed script. Enacting these scenes outside, where toys could be propped in a tree, sloshed after in the bay, or be traipsed about on a rocky, ankle-rolling shoreline was the ultimate high time. The girls would emerge from those days pink-cheeked, hungry, grubby, and beaming. The rewards were, though not quantifiable, undeniably palpable. As adults now, they don’t have those days as much anymore, but judging by the brilliant, self-assured and capable young women they’ve become, I am certain that they are in no small part the products of those halcyon times.

Trying to get your children engaged with nature and making it something that works for the whole family can be a struggle. Louv has clear ideas about the reasons:

Poor design of cities, neighborhoods, homes, schools, workplaces. Media-amplified fear of strangers. Real dangers in some neighborhoods, including traffic and toxins. Fear of lawyers: in a litigious society, families, schools, communities play it safe, creating “risk-free” environments that create greater risks later…Much of society no longer sees time spent in the natural world and independent, imaginary play as “enrichment”…Technology is not, in itself, the enemy; but our lack of balance is lethal. The pandemic of inactivity is one result. Sitting is the new smoking.

Finally, Louv reminds us that accomplishing the aforementioned is a value and a philosophy that doesn’t just happen–it’s a collective responsibility that requires awareness, effort, and resolve.

Not just parents–grandparents, aunts or uncles, educators–we all can spend more time with children in nature. This is quite a challenge, one that emphasizes the importance of exploring nearby opportunities, particularly unstructured time in nature. Schedule outdoor time, direct experiences in nature; make getting outside in a natural area an intentional act–a healthful habit, if you will–that becomes part of your life.


Further Reading

The Nature Principle: Human Restoration and the End of Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.

Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators by David Sobel.

A Natural Sense of Wonder: Connecting Kids with Nature through the Seasons by Rick Van Noy.

The Stick Book: Loads of Things You Can Make or Do with a Stick by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield.

Fed Up with Frenzy: Slow Parenting in a Fast-Moving World by Susan Sachs Lipman.

Thinking Like a Mountain by Robert Bateman.