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Playing in Uncertainty

The importance of outdoor, child-centered play in helping children manage unpredictability
Happy child on playground slide

Playgrounds in the United States are typically designed to minimize risk and keep kids safe. This is especially important in a pandemic, when outdoor play provides children the opportunity to interact with one another relatively safely. Yet meaningful play is also all about uncertainty and risk-taking, according to Project Zero researchers Ben Mardell and Megina Baker and Boston Public Schools Early Childhood Program Developer David Ramsey.

According to Mardell, evolutionary biologists and developmental psychologists believe play exists in humans and across the animal kingdom because it helps us deal with and manage uncertainty in a low-risk way and adapt. “We need to think about creating spaces where kids come together to learn to manage unpredictability, where they’re looking to each other to learn together,” Mardell says.

In a time where educators feel they must provide children with a safe, regulated learning environment, Mardell, Baker, and Ramsey suggest ways for parents to help children use time spent outside to play meaningfully.

Build rules on trust

Adults often dictate the norms and rules around play with the intention of keeping children safe and avoiding conflict. Though current times may call for more adult direction, it’s important to signal to children you trust them to take risks like climbing to the top of a climbing structure or figuring out who gets to take the next turn on the slide.  

  • Keep the rules minimal and simple. Not only does this make it easier for children to remember the rules, but it also sets surprisingly clear boundaries.

Try starting with “We keep each other safe and we take care of our environment.”

  • As children play, it is natural for some conflict to arise. Barring an emergency, ask questions and provide children with a space to reflect on what happened and how they can make improvements to make everyone feel included and safe.

Try prompting kids with “How can we sort this out as a group and make it so recess is fun for everyone and no one gets hurt?”   

Facilitate uncertainty

Outdoor play spaces are often fixed — there’s a designated perimeter, a blacktop, and installed play fixtures like slides and swings. While these spaces provide a space for children to get their energy out and allow for easy adult supervision, their designs often foreground the needs of the adults, rather than the needs of children.

“We need to think about creating spaces where kids come together to learn to manage unpredictability, where they’re looking to each other to learn together.” – Project Zero's Ben Mardell

Research suggests play spaces can greatly enrich learning when they introduce opportunities for risk-taking and invite uncertainty in play. Educators and parents can introduce into play areas “loose parts " that children can move and repurpose. These materials can include plastic blocks, natural materials like sticks, or recycled materials like boxes.

In his own research, Ramsey has found that the simple introduction of loose parts into play spaces can result in:

  • Less conflict. Play is easier to enter because children are not limited by existing structures — for example, having room for only five children on swings at a time. Engaging children results in fewer children feeling left out, occupies minds and hands, and can reduce problem behaviors.
  • Better accessibility. On one hand, play becomes physically more accessible to students — every child can access the parts and find something they can contribute.
  • Less repetitive play. Children can get bored when they only have access to the same space and materials. Introducing new loose parts and materials allows children to expand and transform their games.

Of course, the pandemic makes sharing loose parts tricky. Consider giving children their own set of materials to engage with in outdoor play spaces. These parts can be sterilized and redistributed as needed.

Care for the environment and each other

As children spend time outdoors, not only is it important they play in ways that encourage engagement with others but also that they engage with and care for the play environment itself — whether that’s a schoolyard, a local forest preserve, or a neighborhood park. Finding opportunities for children to engage with the natural world is key to fostering learning and community.

“Caring for a space and for the plants and animals in that space can be a unifying sense of purpose for children,” says Baker. “It can be very powerful, emotionally, for children to be outside sharing that experience together.”

  • Adopt an outdoor space. Regularly visit, observe changes, and find ways to care for it by picking up trash or watering plants.
  • Document your time spent there. Not only can this help children remember what they’ve noticed or prompt questions to explore and experiment with, but it also captures and can reflect the positivity and inclusive spirit that emerges.

Make outdoor play accessible year round

Time spent outdoors is one of the remaining opportunities for children to build community and explore while socially distanced. The winter chill can make this challenging. Instead of moving all instruction inside, leaders should think about allocating funds to invest in appropriate clothing to make the outdoors accessible for all students.

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