Core Routines -- The Value of Wandering and Free Play in Nature


“For me sitting still is harder than any kind of work.” – Annie Oakley

Brian King,

My 2 Cents Wander

Wander through the landscape without time, destination, agenda, or future purpose; be present in the moment; and go off-trail wherever curiosity leads. Hmmm …an educational activity without purpose? A walk in nature without a destination or intent? Are we serious? Yep! Adult intervention does not add value to free play and the work by Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, Michael Thompson PhD, Anthony D. Pellegrini PhD, and Peter K. Smith, PhD shows that free play is necessary for brain and social development, character development and interpersonal skills.

Freeplay on Beach

Furthermore, studies have shown that intervention during play by adults can only take value away from the benefits of free play and not enhance play. Let me say that a different way. Let kids play without giving them direction or rules, just let them play. Let them make their own rules and solve their own arguments.

In today’s world of standardized testing, TV, organized sports and electronic toys, children have very little time for just being kids and engaging in real self-directed free play. According to Dr. Bob Ditter, in a week a child will on average have no more than 15 minutes of truly undirected free play. Please note that free time to play a computer game or board game is not undirected free-play. For the activity to be truly undirected free play there must not be rules or direction given in any form.

freeplay, child making a ladder freeplay, child making a ladderfreeplay, child making a ladder freeplay, child making a ladder freeplay, child making a ladder freeplay, child making a ladder

We feel so serious about this routine that most of our programs have the first day of the week as a “wander” or “walkabout” not for 20 minutes or an hour but for 6 hours or more. Most everyday all of our participants have roughly 30% of the day dedicated to free play and exploration, in both large and small blocks of time.

Freeplay on Beach

Undirected free play does not mean unsupervised time. The staff positions themselves at seemingly arbitrary boundaries up and down stream and around the edges of the meadow and in the forest. They’re close but not so close that the students feel their presence.

It is obvious when a kid is new to free play. At first they are awkward at running on uneven ground, go up to staff and ask if they can play some game and then awkwardly wait to have the staff person facilitate the activity, only to have the staff person tell them that they do not need any help to start a game.

The kids that have grown up in our programs tell the newer kids:

  • That they can go into the forest but not so deep that they cannot see the meadow.
  • They are not to go past the staff member that is sitting up and down stream.
  • The campers are reminded that they are to repeat our return call when they hear it so that it is passed on, and that it means that they need to head back to where the creek crosses the trail.
  • They are reminded how to go potty in the forest.
Child running through forest

On the first day of a session the kids drop their rucksacks and run off like puppies that have been in a kennel too long. In time the returning participants explore, climb trees, build forts, make paint from the rocks in the creeks, take off their shoes and wade in the water looking for crayfish, skip stones, make up games, balance rocks, imagine, tumble, and develop games. The kids play the way our ancestors did from the beginning of man. Yet the kids that have never experenced big blocks of free play have to learn how to play. They learn from trial and error.

We count on the excitement of the moment, involving timeless, unstructured wandering. There is nothing to accomplish, nowhere to go. By just being present in the moment, curiosity gently leads the children wherever they go.

child learning how to us a sling

Please take a moment to read this section to be sure you understand our philosophy and why we choose to give our campers ample time to explore a creek, run up a hill and roll down it, or just use their imagination. We do not consider these activities to be wasted time. We firmly believe that many of the activities that take place during free play are the essential “work” of childhood.

In the January 2007 issue of Pediatrics*, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed., starts off:

free exploration

Play is essential to development because it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth. Playing a directed game with learning objectives is not enough. Children need undirected self-initiated free play.

Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills. When play is allowed to be child driven, children practice decision-making skills, move at their own pace, discover their own areas of interest, and ultimately engage fully in the passions they wish to pursue.

Tag games teach high level social problem solving and interaction skills, I will address this in a later post.

free play tag games

Make no mistake: free play is not free time for our staff. There are always staff people to make sure the kids stay safe, but we work at not hindering their play, creativity or imagination during this time.

At the end of the day in a group of 9 or less under the trees you will see the mentors ask the students what they did that day. They will not ask, “What did you learn today?” but rather “Who has something cool to share” They are given all the time they need to tell their story without interruption, interpretation, or judgment. With no other agenda but to hear the students’ story, they all get heard.

free exploration

If a child tells a story about seeing a lizard, at the end of the story a mentor or a student might ask, “What color was it? Was it smooth or rough? What did the feet look like? How many toes did it have? Did it have ears? Was the tail bigger or smaller than the rest of the lizard? Were there any ticks on it; And so on. These questions help the student tap into their awareness. If they do not know any of the answers there is no judgment, however, there is more curiosity and the child will be very excited to tell what they saw the next time they see a lizard.

western fence lizard with ticks

The staff will not point out a lizard and announce that it is a Western Fence Lizard, but will ask key questions. The next time the child sees the reptile there will be a different level of curiosity, when they see a field guide or Google at hand they will seek out answers to their guestions. Now they will be on the lookout for the particular lizard they saw. Other times the staff will just enjoy hearing about their adventures. At camp fire these kids will also be excited to draw the stories from the staff. This is the way that our ancestors learned 100 to 100,000 years ago. This is just one example of a journey a child may take in their wander.

child learning how to us a sling

Check back here periodically for other stories of free play, wanders, and sit-spots.

*Volume 119, Number 1, January 2007 American Academy of Pediatrics, Kenneth R. Ginsburg, MD, MS Ed, and the Committee on Communications and the Committee on Psychosocial Aspects of Child and Family Health full text

"Almost all creativity involves purposeful play."
——Abraham Maslow
"Play is the only way the highest intelligence of humankind can unfold. Joseph Chilton Pearce "
—--Joseph Chilton Pearce