It’s what every child dreams of doing from the minute they wake up to when they fall asleep. Every second is filled to the brim with ‘play’. Play is how children learn to navigate the in’s and out’s of our world and it’s a vital part to growing up and coming of age. The quality of play a child engages in can be set out by their surroundings. Do they have an environment that dictates to them how they should play (toys, play structures etc) or do they have a blank canvas of nothing where their imagination must do the work and find the engagement for them (a natural environment like a park or the forest). Both kinds of play are valid in a child’s development. Bonus points that the imagination will persist regardless of it’s surroundings.
Recently I had the opportunity to lay witness to the quality of play in two different settings; one in an informed setting (playground) and one in a natural setting (forest). It was inspiring to notice the different qualities of play in both environments.
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I spent a day with two little girls, aged 5 and 3, who live in North Vancouver. We’ll call them Lonnie (5) and Annie (3). When I arrived, Lonnie was at a birthday party and I was to collect her at 1pm. The day outside was gorgeous so I packed some snacks, loaded Annie into the stroller and trundled off into the sunshine. I had big plans for the afternoon with these little ladies and I was excited.
The birthday party location was close to Lonnies school. On the way back, with both girls in the stroller, we discussed going to the school’s playground to hang out for a bit and then going to the forest. Lonnie had received a box of chalk from the birthday party and the desire to colour was strong. Off we go to the playground to explore, colour and climb. The girls drew pictures of Rapunzel and crooked lines with the new chalk. They took a break from colouring to run freely in the open space, and coloured some more. We had strawberries and water in the shade and returned to the chalk once again. The fascination with the chalk eventually wore off so they hit the play structures.
These structures were amazing. Many opportunities to climb in various fashions, practice balancing skills, slides of all sizes nestled on the soft base of wood chips so that if they fell, it wouldn’t hurt. The play structures hit all the markers of assisting children in developing their gross motor functions. The girls climbed all the things, slid all the slides and jumped all the jumps. They did as the structures asked of them and soon became listless in the hot sun. It’s interesting to note that each of them discovered the structures on their own and not with each other as their physicality levels were different.
It was *hot*. I could see the girls were becoming a bit over heated in the sun so I offered them 5 more minutes before heading out. We were going to the forest to bask in the shade of the trees, play in a small stream and throw rocks. When it was time to leave the playground Lonnie was upset. She didn’t want to go. Annie, who had been to the forest with me many times, raced over to the stroller in excitement yelling ‘Fowest! Fowest!’.
Into the stroller we get, one pouting and one smiling.
It was a 25 minute walk to the forested park behind their house. I could see the girls getting a bit drowsy so as we rounded the corner to a familiar street. Not wanting them to fall asleep, I had both of them get out of the stroller and walk with me. Recognizing where we were, Annie shot out of the stroller like a lightning bolt and took off up the sidewalk. This was a walk her and I had done together many times. Lonnie, groggy and hot, lagged behind complaining of being tired. She continued to complain the rest of the walk saying she needed to be in the stroller and that she was tired and that she needed to be in the stroller and and and. I kept telling her what we were going to experience and that we were almost there. It was lost on her, even her sisters excitement over where we were going was lost to her. She was cooked. Done. And told me so. Loudly.
We’re there. We made it. To get into the park is a steep gravel hill. Annie had walked it with me and knew the drill–take small steps. The three of us held hands together, my other hand balancing the large running stroller, and together took small steps down the steep hill. There was a lot of trepidation from the girls but we did it, one little step at a time. Great pride was felt from them as we neared the bottom for we’d done it together, as a team. Now we were under the refreshing canopy of the trees, the air was fresh and much cooler than on the hot pavement. A babbling creek could be heard close by, crows cawing and chickadees chirping. Lonnie immediately perked up. Her eyes became big in wonderment as she took in her surroundings. She began to relax. Annie? Annie ran ahead as she knew exactly where we were going.
We proceeded to spend the next 90 minutes in the forest. Walking down the path Lonnie and I discussed the different bits of nature we saw, counted the ‘water tunnels’ that diverted the creek under the trail to prevent flooding, talked about mushrooms growing on trees and how to identify nurse logs. Annie jumped in and out of these conversations as her focus was on leading the way. Eventually we found our favourite spot next to the creek and hunkered down to throw rocks, squeal over bugs, and get wet.
Annie and I had a favourite spot was where the creek was merely a trickle with a shallow pool in the middle and a large bank with lots of rocks perfect for throwing. At it’s deepest point, the water came just past their ankles. Just behind us was a huge hollowed out nurse log that could be walked through safely, vine maples danced just above our heads and the creek offered us a peaceful soundtrack to our afternoon. So many interesting landscapes and things to explore were at our fingertips.
Annie began throwing rocks into the water, her favourite pass time. Lonnie soon joined in and together they tried to see who could get the bigger splash. Sometimes they’d splash themselves and squeal with delight. Curiosity began to get the better of them as they creeped closer and closer to the water’s edge. I suggested they take off their shoes and socks and dip their toes in. They did and discovered it was hard to walk on the rocks in their bare feet. Without batting an eyelash, Lonnie put her shoes back on and walked back into the water before I could say WAIT! Ah well. Annie followed suit shortly after with her shoes on.
Together they walked through the water, one assisting the other when necessary and built up the courage to cross to the other side. The girls became mermaids sitting on big rocks that were in the middle of the creek, they became fearless as they walked into the deeper water—that came just past their ankles—they felt pride and powerful in conquering these fears. Lonnie and Annie engaged together in their play quite happily.
Just as the playground structures offered all of the markers to assist children in developing their gross motor skills, the forest offered the exact same thing but in a different way. Walking on the rocks in the creek offered them core strength and balance experiences, climbing on the rocks offered them upper body strength as did throwing the rocks. The only difference was that if they fell, there wasn’t a soft layer of wood chips to catch their fall. Instead, there were rounded rocks in the creek and a soft forested ground to catch them. All of the markers were being hit in regards to gross motor skill development and it all happened under the cool shade of the trees that was just 3 blocks from their house.
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It’s what it’s all about regardless of how old we are. The environments we engage in inform our play. The quality of play in the forest was much richer and engaging for the girls than the playground. In the forest they were offered opportunities to work together assisting each other through the creek, they delved deep into their imaginations to become something other than what they were for a minute and they had a wonderful sensory experience simply by being in the forest. In contrast, the playground felt stark, lonely and isolating. Having exposure to different kinds of environments is key in any developmental stage because variety is a great thing. What I came away with on this day was the power of natural settings and just how fulfilling they can be to the wee ones of our world.