In her article entitled “Einstein May Never Have Used Flashcards, but He Probably Built Forts” (published in Ed., the magazine of the Harvard Graduate School of Education), author Lory Hogue discusses the importance of free play in childhood. Notice the word “free” in that phrase “free play”. There’s a big difference between taking your kids to a gymnastics class and setting them loose in your yard with as little interference from adults as possible. According to research cited by Hogue, playgrounds don’t fit the bill:

“For some kids, their only outdoor time is spent at local playgrounds, what Goodenough calls ‘austere concrete and plastic gyms.’ Usually there’s a climbing object and a swing, all on a flat surface. The problem, she says, is that this kind of space only develops gross motor skills like balance and coordination. It does little for creativity and sensory exploration.”

At first, I disagreed with this. Who doesn’t love going to the playground? Kids socialize there, climb there, play there! But it’s true: Free play, going outside with what are really more tools than toys (shovels, buckets, water, sticks, etc.), is slowly dying. I know I had plenty of it in my childhood. We made dangerously constructed forts, dug giant holes, trapped baby fish in streams, staged excavations and did more than a few things that my parents would probably rather not know about. But we survived, and we learned from it all.

When I think about it, what my 3 year old son plays with most aren’t even toys. He stacks rocks and sticks and roasts invisible marshmallows on invisible campfires, uses sticks as screwdrivers to “repair” trees and makes nests for the birds. Now that the weather is turning warmer and it’s staying light later, I vow to give my kids more free play time.

As Hogue quotes one of the play researchers in her article,

“In our highly programmed, commercial world, down time and away space slip away. Children need the space and time every day to do nothing, so that who they are can grow.”

A good reminder as spring, and soon, summer, arrive :)