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?”
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.