Our children need more than ever before to play outside with others right now. The press has focused recently on the need for our children to catch up academically. I would argue that our younger children need to catch up on socialisation and play with others. Learning to navigate friendships and peer interactions is so vital for their development.
A year without playdates and sleepovers, let alone the chance to spread their wings and walk to the park with a friend, is having a profound impact on our children.
Realistically we all look back at our childhood with an element of rose-tinted glasses but the new British Children’s Play Survey, published this week, suggests it is perhaps true in the case of independence.
We don’t now allow our children the same level of freedom. Parents say their children have been allowed to play outside alone two years later than they were. But are today’s children really more at risk than the previous generation?
“Schools can and should play a part in reclaiming areas and experiences of freedom for our children.”
Whatever your opinion, I would argue that play can happen anywhere — there is no need to send your child wild camping alone for two days at the age of eight — schools can and should play a part in reclaiming areas and experiences of freedom for our children.
We can support families by creating real life experiences in controlled environments. At Frensham Heights, we offer as many opportunities as possible for the children to develop their independence, ability to assess risk and become resilient individuals. From Nursery to Year 6 they spend lots of unstructured time outside in our outdoor and forest areas and in doing so learn how to manage risk themselves right from the age of three.
We apply the same approach to our classroom teaching too — one of our main aims is to encourage independence and confidence be that when using scissors or climbing a tree. The level of supervision starts high and then we start to step back, increasing their independence and self-reliance.
“There is evidence that supervised play with a facilitator can be incredibly beneficial.”
Thinking more broadly, much can be learnt in the playground but our playground spaces must be accessible and communal to really support that learning. Any space can be a space to play. A playground in a park with a custom-built tractor will only inspire children to pretend to be on a farm.
However, an open-ended structure without a theme can be anything that child imagines. Traditionally loose parts play has been something that only Early Years students have enjoyed. However, from my personal experience children of all ages can engage with loose objects to support their imagination.
Whilst on a residential trip a few years ago with Year 4, the children had a shed full of crates, planks, old telephones, keyboards, ropes, chairs to name just a few things and would spend hours creating scenarios and “playing” as a group.
So, this year at Frensham Heights, spurred on by the children’s needs post lockdown, we have extended loose parts play to our Year 4 to 6 playground this term to encourage true freedom and flexibility. They may build a tower, a den, a cinema, a rocket, who knows?
“It’s critical that staff are present with the children and not just out on playground duty.”
Finally, to that issue of supervision vs independence. There is evidence that supervised play with a facilitator can be incredibly beneficial and we know this from our model for Early Years. However I would challenge us to question why should this stop as children grow. I know the Year 4 to 6 teachers at Frensham will need no encouragement to play alongside their children with the loose parts equipment.
It’s critical that staff are present with the children and not just out on playground duty. For parents, I would encourage the same – dedicate time to facilitate play with your children inside or out. Build some Lego creations together not using any instructions to support problem solving.
Be outside with your children making dens and making up scenarios to encourage them to safely assess their own risk in a way that you also feel comfortable with.
As ever the partnership between school and home is really important and together I truly believe we can put in place measures that will support our children in the UK to reclaim the ability to be independent and play with their friends in our local areas.