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Saying Yes to Play

Think back to your own childhood. Where was your favorite place to play? What are some of your memories of that place and what did you do there? Were you an explorer? A builder? A risk- taker? A mess-maker? Were you a free-range kid? Did you do things your parents didn’t know about? Through my work designing natural playscapes for young children, I hear all sorts of inspired stories from adults about where and how they played as kids. “We were always down in the creek looking for frogs and skipping stones.” “We played by the railroad tracks.” “We built our own forts and made our own play.” “We played outside in the neighborhood until the street lights came  on.” I’m always honored and happy to hear these stories. They remind me of my own free-ranging childhood. But when I ask those same adults if their children play that way today the answer is sadly often no. And if I ask them if they would let their children play like they did as kids, people say, “no way!” Yes, times have changed since a lot of us were kids. There are definitely more pressures on children, families, and schools for safety and success, and so many things competing for our children’s time and attention. We all want the best for our kids and to keep them safe from injury. But in doing so have we become over-protective? Many people say today’s children have become too sheltered and limited in what they are free to do. Shouldn’t they be allowed to just play?

Over the last two to three decades children have experienced a range of health issues caused by a lack of play. This play deficit disorder started as a childhood obesity issue. Reduced play meant reduced movement and children’s bodies began to suffer. Then children started developing chronic health issues formerly associated with adults, such as heart disease, high blood pressure, and type 2 diabetes. Now mental health issues are topping the list with the highest rates ever recorded of childhood depression, anxiety, and even suicide. It’s sad and grim and has reached a level of crisis that can no longer be ignored. Adults finally have realized that the pendulum for safety above everything else has swung too far in a negative direction, and we drastically need to make changes. It is wonderful that one of the simplest solutions to combatting this growing crisis is by finding ways to say yes again to play.

Through play children learn, create, imagine, communicate, collaborate, try new skills, make new friends, discover who they are and what they love. Play is the natural way children grow and develop their brains and bodies. It’s hard-wired, built-in, beautiful, and fun. Children need opportunities to run, dig, climb, build, make a mess, even fall down and get a scratch. It’s true. It’s ok. Children need the chance to take risks and try doing things they’ve never tried before. Fail. Succeed! We can only truly learn by doing for ourselves. We don’t do our children any favors by calling all the shots, limiting all the risk, and stepping in to be the ones who say no to play. Certain risky play behaviors by children make us nervous as adults. We all have our lines and limits. But adults now are working hard to find ways to say yes more. Instead of immediately stepping in to say no, we are learning to first take a step back and observe the play. Trust our children. Support their play. Everybody’s yes is different. What is your yes? What is your no? How can you move the needle?

People are doing some amazing things to bring back the power of play. One of

the models of how to say yes to play is coming from the playwork profession of Europe. Trained playworkers staffing those famous “junk” adventure playgrounds support kid-built constructions, cooking over fires, tending animals and more. They observe the play and only step in if they really need to. Playworkers provide materials for children’s play and work to protect child- initiated play from adult ideas and agendas. They also have a reflective practice that looks at their daily work with children with critical eyes and always strives to improve. You could incorporate playwork principles into your dealings with children. Whole communities are also getting into the mix by transforming neighborhoods into playborhoods and building up their communities. Instead of play happening tucked away on swingsets in the backyard, people are installing play stuff in front yards, painting games on the sidewalks, eating meals on front yard picnic tables and inviting the neighborhood to join in the fun. Nature play spaces are being built in schoolyards, childcare centers, parks and private residences that connect children to nature through play and offer interest and opportunities for exploration and wonder in all seasons. Instead of just metal monkey bars, these landscapes for play incorporate hills, trees, gardens, rocks, sand, water, sculpture and more. And while we’re adding stuff to the playscape, loose parts can be the best way to stimulate children’s excitement for play, construction, engineering, and art projects. Loose parts for play can be anything from boards to balls, to PVC pipe, fabric, tires, pots, pans, shovels, stumps, logs, pool noodles and more. To the adult's eye, these are discarded materials. To the child’s eye, they are endless possibilities!


So what can you do to start to say yes more? How can you support play? I always like to say, “Dream Big, Start Small, and Never Stop.” Small changes, step by step, can start to have a big impact on your children’s lives. You don’t have to have kids building scrap wood towers with hammers and nails (yet). Start with a cardboard box in the yard. Stand back and see what they do. Give children some shovels and a designated area to dig. Step back and watch. Bring in some loose parts. The children may have to get used to you not saying no, but once they do they’ll go for it. All children want to play. All children want to say yes. But it’s up to the adults to let them. It’s finding new ways to say yes. Take deep breaths. Step back. Be amazed. Repeat. How can you say yes?


Rusty Keeler is an author, designer, and speaker who works to inspire and collaborate with communities to create beautiful outdoor environments for children. He has designed and built natural play spaces around the world for over twenty years and is the author of the books Natural Playscapes: Creating Outdoor Play Environments for the Soul (Exchange Press: 2008) and Seasons of Play (Gryphon House: 2016) and the forthcoming Adventures in Risky Play (Exchange Press: 2019). For more information, resources, pictures, and to join his newsletter, visit www. earthplay.net.

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