We’ve touched on this topic before during lockdown when we made the decision to not visit playgrounds and parks during periods of increased infections of Covid-19 last winter.
However, recently we have continued to discuss this and evaluate the benefits and impact that natural, hands-on experience provide in comparison to man-made, fit for purpose playgrounds and play equipment.
During a visit to our local park, and one of our favourite places to walk with Billie, the children happily chased bubbles across the vast green fields as they frolicked with the dog, noticed daisies growing in the long grass before encountering one of their favourite areas of this particular park; the bike/dirt track – effectively a muddy, dusty section of the woodland area, sunken into the ground with countless solid muddy hills and ramps.
The children spent over 30 minutes freely exploring, with very little input from us, challenging each other to races up and around the circuit, showing incredible determination, resilience and the most impressive teamwork and imagination, as we stood at the top of the track and watched them play, learn and problem solve together – effectively, with mounds of mud.
On the horizon, as we watched the children frolicking in the earth and mud mounds, you could see the park in the distance behind them and this really allowed us to reflect; these children were using complex physical and cognitive skills as they tackled extremely challenging physical obstacles, working together and supporting each other, entirely unprompted and using incredible imaginative and collaborative skills to think of, develop and explore games and scenarios as part of a larger group – would this depth of purposeful learning be unfolding in a more man-made, structured environment? And just how incredible is it that our children are able to find such deep, intense levels of joy and meaningful learning experiences and opportunities from essentially, piles of dirt, it’s just incredible to watch and reflect upon.
The children’s play continued in this way for some time, but as we meandered across the fields with Billie, they of course noticed the park and asked to play; all but empty, we encouraged them to go right ahead – we have relaxed our policies on visits such as this given local rates of infections, restrictions easing and our own professional judgement (we still try and utilise quieter times of days and frequent places that are not excessively busy).
The children had a wonderful time challenging themselves physically on some of the larger apparatus and quickly developed a pirate treasure game together using some of the smaller, less age-appropriate apparatus and it was so fascinating for us as practitioners to watch how dramatically their play changed and shifted dynamics when presented with a totally different play space.
Whilst they still challenged themselves physically on the apparatus; striking a balance between too complex and too easy was difficult as the apparatus varied in such complexities that the more age-appropriate/younger apparatus didn’t provide enough challenge and the children got bored easily, whereas the higher, more challenging equipment was that degree too challenging and so the children lost confidence quickly and this then impacted on their determination and resilience – the complete opposite of their determination and resilience levels earlier in the mud mounds.
Similarly, whilst the children all engaged in the same pirate narrative using the smaller apparatus, this was noticeably less colloborative and lacked the empathy and encouragement they had been displaying as they worked together to develop their game some 30 minutes previous.
As with everything in life and early years, every thing has its place in terms of opportunities, learning and development, and that is very much the same for these man-made physical play experiences; we will of course continue to take our children to parks and playgrounds, but we must never overlook the value and purpose that the natural world, outdoor areas and open-ended play spaces provide for our children, as we have witnessed first-hand on countless occasions just how beneficial unrushed, un-prompted and un-interrupted time in nature’s playground has on our children’s learning and development holistically.