Parenting - Free-Play

Wandering and Free Play in Nature

“The childhood landscape is learned on foot, and a map is enscribed in the mind – trails and pathways and groves – the mean dog, the cranky old man’s house, the pasture with the bull in it – going out wider and farther. All of us carry within us a picture of the terrain that was learned between roughly ages 6 and 9.” Gary Snyder

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, Jon Young, 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.

preteen play on a hill

Furthermore, studies have shown that intervention during the 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 todays 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.

preteen play on a hill
Reading from a Book

We feel so serious about this routine that most of our programs have the first day of the sessions as a “wander” or “walkabout” not for 20 minutes or an hour but for 6 hours or more.

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 can see the students and prevent them from doing truly dangerous or destructive behavior, but not so close to that the students feel their presence.

It is obvious when a kid is new to free play. 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 the game.

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

  • You must see the meadow.
  • You can explore up or down stream until you get to the marker.
  • Make the coyote call when they hear it so that it is passed on, and head back.
  • Remember to Leave No Trace.
preteen play on a hill

They drop their day packs and run off to 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 their ancestors did from the beginning of man.

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.

preteen play on a hill

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, "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. Ginsburg continues, "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.”

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 the staff mentors the students; they ask the students to tell the story of what they did. 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.

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?" 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. But now there is more curiosity and the child will be very excited to tell what they saw the next time they see a lizard.

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 a reptile field guide, 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 100s, 1,000s, or 10,000s of years ago. This is just one example of a journey a child may take in their wander.

Check back here periodically for other stories of free play and wander.

*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

"Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows, plains and mountains and streams of our blessed star, and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life."
—John Muir
"Perhaps the ache of homesickness was a fair price to pay for having so many good people in her life."
—Becky Chambers