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No, We’re Not Going to Play a Game

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No, We’re Not Going to Play a Game:
Or, The Joy and Utility of Unstructured Play in Outdoor Education

I have discovered a truly amazing activity to do with kids.  Do you want to hear about it?  It’s pretty easy to set up, it doesn’t require any gear, and the outcomes are fantastic.  After completing this activity with my students, they feel more self-sufficient and connected to nature. They’ve worked together to solve problems, and best of all, they are calmer and happier than they were before we started.  What is this amazing wonder activity, you ask? Unstructured time to simply play outside.  No games, no tasks to complete, just time.

As educators, we have been told over and over again how important it is for children to engage in unstructured, outdoor play.  Richard Louv, founder of the Children and Nature Network and author of the bestselling book Last Child in the Woods, has dedicated his life to the task of getting children engaged in unstructured outdoor play.  Louv’s body of research includes both academic and anecdotal findings, all pointing towards the notion that children need unstructured outdoor playtime in order to develop self-esteem, fine and gross motor abilities, and essential social skills. 

Though this research is still in its infancy, the evidence is strong: a 2011 study from the University of Pennsylvania, entitled An Investigation of Unstructured Play in Nature and its Effect on Children’s Self-Efficacy, concluded that “outdoor unstructured play may be essential to core mastery [a measure of self-efficacy] in children: it has been linked to improvements in cognitive, behavioral, and even physical functioning.”

Despite all of this, we often let unstructured play time fall to the wayside when planning our schedules.  Exploration time gets cut in favor of a teambuilding activity; a half-hour to just poke around becomes a formal scavenger hunt.  We have all the standard excuses for why we don’t make time for this kind of experience: We’re too busy!  We only have our students for a few days, and simply have too many things to do.  Or: we’re already outside, exploring and learning—isn’t that really the point?

If we continue to make these excuses, we are missing out on the opportunity to provide our students with much needed time for unstructured play. Aside from the developmental and social benefits this activity provides, many of the things that we want our students to learn and practice—teamwork, exploration and discovery, independence—come organically through unstructured play.  Students challenge themselves and one another, work together to overcome obstacles, and push their intellectual boundaries when given the time and space to do so.

Here’s how to facilitate unstructured playtime with your students, without feeling like you’re just wasting your time:

  1. Pick a location.
    1. Pick a location, and make it a good one!  The best location for some unstructured playtime is somewhere that is sufficiently stimulating and challenging—a field is a bad example.  If you give kids a field to play in, it will eventually turn into a game of tag.  There’s nothing wrong with tag, but if your objective is to provide unstructured time to play and explore, it’s best to provide your students with a space that sparks their curiosity.  Clearings in the forest, a stand of trees, a stretch of waterfront, or even an overgrown city lot (provided it’s relatively clean and safe) are all good options.
  2. Set up some parameters.
    1. Give your students concrete and understandable boundaries, and stick to them.
    2. Give your students a generous time limit, at least twenty or thirty minutes, and lots of reminders/countdowns.  No one, no matter what age, enjoys having to abruptly stop an activity without warning.
    3. Remind students that safety is always first.  At the same time, however, consider allowing your general thoughts on “safety” to be stretched a tad.  Pushing boundaries—within reason—is how children learn to effectively manage risky situations.  It’s an essential life skill that is learned when engaging in unstructured play!
  3. Back away.
    1. This is unstructured playtime, not “guided nature discovery time.”  Your students need some time that is largely unregulated by adults in order to challenge themselves and grow, and this is a great opportunity.  It can be difficult to not turn unstructured playtime into a series of “teachable moments,” A teachable moment that is created by students is exponentially more rewarding and memorable for them, as it is coming from their own interests and explorations.
    2. Let students explore how and what they want to.  Though you might not find the underside of a rock particularly exciting, your students very well may, and that is what this activity is all about.

Outdoor, unstructured playtime can be built into any teaching schedule, given some flexibility and ingenuity on the part of the instructor.  It is a great way to start the day and get kids excited about what to come, or a good wrap-up to let your students mellow out after a strenuous day in the field.  Though unstructured playtime can feel quite hands-off for some educators, the student-driven learning that occurs is authentic, meaningful, and valuable.

No, We’re Not Going to Play a Game:
Or, The Joy and Utility of Unstructured Play in Outdoor Education

I have discovered a truly amazing activity to do with kids.  Do you want to hear about it?  It’s pretty easy to set up, it doesn’t require any gear, and the outcomes are fantastic.  After completing this activity with my students, they feel more self-sufficient and connected to nature. They’ve worked together to solve problems, and best of all, they are calmer and happier than they were before we started.  What is this amazing wonder activity, you ask? Unstructured time to simply play outside.  No games, no tasks to complete, just time.

As educators, we have been told over and over again how important it is for children to engage in unstructured, outdoor play.  Richard Louv, founder of the Children and Nature Network and author of the bestselling book Last Child in the Woods, has dedicated his life to the task of getting children engaged in unstructured outdoor play.  Louv’s body of research includes both academic and anecdotal findings, all pointing towards the notion that children need unstructured outdoor playtime in order to develop self-esteem, fine and gross motor abilities, and essential social skills. 

Though this research is still in its infancy, the evidence is strong: a 2011 study from the University of Pennsylvania, entitled An Investigation of Unstructured Play in Nature and its Effect on Children’s Self-Efficacy, concluded that “outdoor unstructured play may be essential to core mastery [a measure of self-efficacy] in children: it has been linked to improvements in cognitive, behavioral, and even physical functioning.”

Despite all of this, we often let unstructured play time fall to the wayside when planning our schedules.  Exploration time gets cut in favor of a teambuilding activity; a half-hour to just poke around becomes a formal scavenger hunt.  We have all the standard excuses for why we don’t make time for this kind of experience: We’re too busy!  We only have our students for a few days, and simply have too many things to do.  Or: we’re already outside, exploring and learning—isn’t that really the point?

If we continue to make these excuses, we are missing out on the opportunity to provide our students with much needed time for unstructured play. Aside from the developmental and social benefits this activity provides, many of the things that we want our students to learn and practice—teamwork, exploration and discovery, independence—come organically through unstructured play.  Students challenge themselves and one another, work together to overcome obstacles, and push their intellectual boundaries when given the time and space to do so.

Here’s how to facilitate unstructured playtime with your students, without feeling like you’re just wasting your time:

  1. Pick a location.
    1. Pick a location, and make it a good one!  The best location for some unstructured playtime is somewhere that is sufficiently stimulating and challenging—a field is a bad example.  If you give kids a field to play in, it will eventually turn into a game of tag.  There’s nothing wrong with tag, but if your objective is to provide unstructured time to play and explore, it’s best to provide your students with a space that sparks their curiosity.  Clearings in the forest, a stand of trees, a stretch of waterfront, or even an overgrown city lot (provided it’s relatively clean and safe) are all good options.
  2. Set up some parameters.
    1. Give your students concrete and understandable boundaries, and stick to them.
    2. Give your students a generous time limit, at least twenty or thirty minutes, and lots of reminders/countdowns.  No one, no matter what age, enjoys having to abruptly stop an activity without warning.
    3. Remind students that safety is always first.  At the same time, however, consider allowing your general thoughts on “safety” to be stretched a tad.  Pushing boundaries—within reason—is how children learn to effectively manage risky situations.  It’s an essential life skill that is learned when engaging in unstructured play!
  3. Back away.
    1. This is unstructured playtime, not “guided nature discovery time.”  Your students need some time that is largely unregulated by adults in order to challenge themselves and grow, and this is a great opportunity.  It can be difficult to not turn unstructured playtime into a series of “teachable moments,” A teachable moment that is created by students is exponentially more rewarding and memorable for them, as it is coming from their own interests and explorations.
    2. Let students explore how and what they want to.  Though you might not find the underside of a rock particularly exciting, your students very well may, and that is what this activity is all about.

Outdoor, unstructured playtime can be built into any teaching schedule, given some flexibility and ingenuity on the part of the instructor.  It is a great way to start the day and get kids excited about what to come, or a good wrap-up to let your students mellow out after a strenuous day in the field.  Though unstructured playtime can feel quite hands-off for some educators, the student-driven learning that occurs is authentic, meaningful, and valuable.

About the Author
Bailey Lininger
Bailey Lininger is currently a Master’s of Education student in a partnership program between IslandWood and the University of Washington, with a focus on Educating for Environment and Community. She is passionate about creating experiential educational experiences for students that foster their sense of adventure, independence, and self-efficacy.