I watched a group of children in the park yesterday; 8 and 9 year olds. Their mother told them they had 20 minutes to play and then they would go home. Now I don’t know if 20 minutes is a long time in the mind of a child, but I thought about this and realised it is the same length of time of recess at most schools and lunch time play is normally 30-40 minutes, so that must be enough time for a decent play…. Right?
The children ran to the traditional metal play equipment, spent 5 minutes climbing and swinging and jumping and then took themselves the large tree at the edge of the park. They did a few laps and decided to try to climb it. They tried all kinds of strategies over the next 10 minutes and finally boosted each other up and then pulled up the last child together. At this point, they had 2 minutes left according the initial schedule, but I could see the mother watching the children and sensed she was going to be flexible as she also seemed to be enjoying her book.
Once in the tree, the children played for half an hour. They allocated each other bedrooms and a lounge room and ate a pretend dinner and went to bed and woke up. They visited each other with gifts of leaves and enjoyed the new home they had discovered. They helped each other down from the tree, showed the mother the tree and gave her a tour from the ground and were then ready to go. It was now an hour after they arrived and I was so overjoyed to have witnessed this beautiful play moment and also grateful the mother let them play.
Reflecting on this moment, I am now saddened when I think about the time children have for free play in school. At 15 minutes for these children, the play had only just begun; they had only just entered the tree. Imagine what they would have missed had they been called to leave at that point. I understand there is much to learn in the classroom, but I wonder what other opportunities children are getting for these valued long periods of free play. I have had this conversation with teachers before who tell me that they get periods of time for outside play and they play structured group games and sports, but it is not time for free play.
What kind of learning could come from spending an hour with your friends living in a tree…. Is that less important than lessons from an intentional curriculum? I am making a suggestion that there is the possibility for dedicated periods of time during the school day for children for play outside, in nature for lengths of over an hour so they can engage in deeper, more meaningful exploration and play. I suspect this will be beneficial for their overall wellbeing as well as development and develop some stronger relationships between the children and also with the teacher. I think there is a philosophy in some schools that the outdoor play times are for running around and burning off energy so the children can sit at a desk, and I think this is what the children do, but if the outdoor play periods were extended beyond the current time frame, we might find the children slow down outside, not feel so rushed to burn off steam and might actually develop their play, their imaginations, their social skills and their sense of wellbeing as well as improving their concentration in the classroom.