Learning through Play

Last week, the public schools in our area were closed for a day to enable teachers and district staff to attend professional development sessions. With no preschool sessions that day, we offered families to bring their school-aged children at Tír na nÓg Forest School!

After our regular site risk assessment and ice breaker group activities, the children immediately set out to explore our forest basecamp and engage in free-play.

As a forest school educator, one of my favourite responsibilities during forest school sessions is to observe what kind of things the children get up to during their play and challenge myself to look for ideas and signals from the children that there is something I can do to support them to help them make the most of their experiences.

It wasn't long before all the children found something that caught their interests and all different kinds of play was happening everywhere!

One 5-year old child who had been to forest school as a preschooler, found his favourite hammock and chose to jump in and swing as high as he could all while humming a tune to himself; a brother and sister, who came to our last school-aged day, discovered and began exploring a new "treehouse" that another child had built since they were last here; a group of three boys assembled, and with sticks in hand, made off through the trees as "bad guys"; and a couple of girls discovered the mud kitchen and started making "cupcakes and soup."

With so much happening all at once, it can be challenging to decide who to focus on and for how long!

As I looked around me to decide what to do, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted two children that were a few years apart in age, gathering materials and talking to each other all the while. Not really sure what they were going to get up to with the items they were collecting, I was intrigued and moved in for a closer look.

From past experiences, I have learned that observing children during play must be approached very carefully. If you are spotted, some children will simply stop what they are doing when they feel they are being "watched." As I approached the two children,  I tried my best not to get too close and be noticed. Here is some of the conversation I overheard:

8-year old Girl: "These can be seats" - as she rolls some cut stumps out of the forest

6-year old Boy: "This can be the window" - as he picks up a square of pieces of wood nailed together

8-year old Girl: "Can you help me pick up this board? I can't do it all by myself!"

6-year old Boy: "Ok. Just a minute!"

It is becoming more obvious to me that they are creating some kind of room or building and with heads down and throwing ideas back and forth almost constantly, they appear to be very focused on what they are doing.  Rather than go in and ask them what they are doing, I decide to stand back and just listen and watch for a bit.

Before long, I can see they have a shelf with a window and two stumps behind for the "shopkeepers" to sit when "customers" come to make their orders. As they are gathering materials and organizing them in milk crates and other kinds of piles on and around the shelf they are talking all the while about what these items are.  Suddenly I'm spotted and the girl asks me, "Do you have any rope?"

I said I could get them some and asked how much they want. She says, "A long one."

Off I go to the tool shed and retrieve a longish length of rope. When I give it to the girl, she says, "Thanks!" and turning to the boy, announces, "Here's some climbing rope!" On to the shelf it goes.

I ask, "What are you going to do with the climbing rope?" and the girl replies, "We are making a mini-MEC store. You know, like Mountain Equipment Co-op?"

She then points to the wood cookies they have stacked and say, "These are the climbing suction cups and here is the gas for the stoves."

"How interesting!" I respond.

Girl: "Do you have any cardboard and tape?"

I point to the shelter and tell them there is cardboard and markers in there and I will go find them some tape. By the time I come back, they have decided to call their store "The Safety Store" and are beginning to make price tags with some paper they found. Watch the video to see them making price tags as their customers discover their store and join in the play.

My phone ran out of memory at the end of this clip so I didn't get to record nearly as much as I would have liked to. Afterwards, as more customers discovered the store, the play evolved and became a bit more chaotic to follow with so many more children playing together. In short, someone decided the customers would pay for items using rocks and then another child found some seashells they called "shellings" (maybe they had heard of the English shilling somewhere before?) which they decided were worth more because there weren't very many of them to be found.

The socio-economics became even more complex and interesting as some of the children began to haggle with the shop keepers for lower prices and make deals with one another. At one point, some of the customers got the idea to take what they had bought and start their own store behind the "Safety Store" which eventually lead to the original owners getting fed up and deciding to shut down and move to another location because the competition was getting to be too much of a problem for them.


Why is this important?

So they are playing. That's what children do, don't they? What's the big deal?

As simple as it might seem to some people, it's actually a very big deal in terms of what the children are getting out of it! Let's take a minute to think about the value in what they are doing.

The Inherent Value of Play

Play has value in and of itself. 

The "What is Play?" blog post by Megan Dickerson of The New Children's Museum in San Diego, California sums up almost everything I would like to say about why play is inherently important, but she has already said it....and probably better than me! So rather than try to sum up in my own words, I ask you to give her the credit and please take a read

You never know what children will come up with when you give them the freedom, space, time and access to some open-ended materials to explore their world and engage with others.

You never know what children will come up with when you give them the freedom, space, time and access to some open-ended materials to explore their world and engage with others.


Children have the right to play

In 1990, the United Nations ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This document outlines all the things that children should have or be able to do. Article 31 states that children have the "right to play". As an internationally accepted document, I think this statement gives a lot of weight and credibility on the importance of play for children!



Play and Child Development

According to Play England, "Play is an essential part of every child’s life and is vital for the enjoyment of childhood as well as social, emotional, intellectual and physical development." 

When these levels of development are taken into account and valued equally, this places value on the whole child and their holistic development.

Play can then be thought of as offering opportunities for holistic learning.

According to the Holistic Education Network of Tasmania, Australia, holistic learning is organised around relationships within and between learners and their environment while empowering learners to live fully in the present and to co-create preferred futures.



Learning Emerges through Play

As I consider the level of complexity of the play happening in the creation and use of the "Safety Store" as well as the variety of play that all of the children were engaging in throughout the forest for that first half hour of our Forest School day, I can't help but be amazed by the imagination, effort and problem-solving these children are using in their play. And perhaps this is a good place to remind you that these children were given absolutely no specific direction from us educators to do anything except to, "Go Play!"

So why do we leave things so open-ended at Forest School? Why is free-play such a big part of what we do here?

Looking back at the "Safety Store" example, what are some of the things the children are exercising and learning through the experience? Here are just a few of things I noticed:

  • imagination
  • creativity
  • cooperation with others
  • socio-economics
  • dealing with emotions
  • resilience
  • math
  • literacy

Obviously, a lot was going on! And the most beautiful thing about it for me, is that other than finding some rope and directing the children to a few art supplies that I had on the ready, I really had nothing to do with it! Everything was completely of their own design!


Valuing Freedom in Play

Free-play (i.e. play without formal rules like in organized sports which are guided by established rules) is an especially important activity for children to have time and space to engage in because it supports children's holistic learning and development.

The Forest School Canada guide book; Forest and Nature School in Canada: a Head, Heart, Hands Approach to Outdoor Learning uses a quote from Bob Hughes', "Evolutionary Playwork" to best explain free-play as:

“a process that is freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. That is, children and young people determine and control the content and intent of their play, by following their own instincts, ideas, and interests in their own way for their own reasons.”  

One of my most memorable forest school afternoons happened almost two years ago when a group of our preschool boys asked me to help them make swords out of stick and rope as part of their "bad guy" play. 

After they all had swords, a few of them grabbed the rope box and started making a "booby-trap" for the bad guys. Meanwhile, one of the boys wanted to make a sheath for his sword so we decided to use cardboard and tape to make one. He enjoyed that so much that he thought he would make himself a suit of armour out of the cardboard. Before the end of the day, with much collaboration between the children and myself the educator, this was what came of their work just before pick-up time:

This video captures just a moment of what was a three-hour free-play session!  I could have told them I didn't want them to make a mess with the ropes or that they were wasting the cardboard stash, but I didn't! And what a wonderful time we had!


There have been so many more similar stories I could share, but I think I'd rather just "go play!"