Over the last year, I have had the pleasure of working with Claude Stephens and the Children at Play Network (CAPN) at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest just south of Louisville, helping them to further develop their ideas for the Playcosystem at Bernheim. The Playcosystem, short for Play – Ecosystem, is a large nature-based playground that will be a major new amenity at Bernheim, while also being a space for the teaching and testing of research-backed, best-practices in Play.
Seeing the nature playground coming along (take a look at the renderings and progress photos below), reminded me of just how much I have learned about play through the process. Play is incredibly complex, especially for grown-ups. It is clear from many of the spaces that have been created for children, that we adults don’t really understand what quality play looks like. Children, however, when left on their own and given the right environment know exactly what it is – meaningful and creative play comes naturally.
The best way to think about the quality play is summed up in the statement below:
Play is a set of behaviors that are freely chosen, personally directed, and intrinsically motivated. (Almon, Bundy, Sullivan & VanderMolen, 2012)
The key is that the play is unstructured. Unstructured play is the most important element of our children’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development, and there is quite a bit of research to back this up. What we often think of as play (playgrounds, children’s toys, sports, games) is quite structured and with defined outcomes. Even when the play could be open-ended, we adults often feel the need to define rules, direct the play, or look for learning/teaching opportunities.