Children are always eager to play, but how they play has changed. Today, kids are less likely to play without adult intervention; they have many more toys than in the past; and for some children, adult-led activities are the main source of play.
To counter these shifts, play advocates offer alternative approaches that restore old values and incorporate modern touches. These four play trends are expanding in the Seattle area and have several factors in common: The adult’s role is nondirective, the format nurtures children’s natural curiosity, and expensive equipment and toys are not required.
Coined by Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson, the term “heuristic” comes from the Greek word eurisko, meaning “to discover” or “to gain an understanding of.” Heuristic play offers children (usually younger than 3) a chance to play freely with household and natural objects in a controlled environment. A key component of heuristic play is that the child leads — adults are there to provide support, but not to direct what happens.
Treasure baskets are at the heart of heuristic play for babies. Filled with safe, natural household objects, these sturdy baskets are presented to babies for exploration from the time they can sit up. They take out items to investigate using their hands, mouths, eyes and ears, as an adult sits nearby to offer comfort or help as needed. Treasure baskets are common at infant and toddler centers, particularly Montessori schools, and can also be used at home.
Once household objects become familiar, babies will start to be interested in what these items can do. Toddlers are driven by natural curiosity and the urge to handle objects. Heuristic play enables them to discover how things work by exploring concepts such as posting, stacking and sequencing.
During a toddler play session, multisensory materials (not toys) are spread around an otherwise empty room, freeing the children from distraction. Each child is given a selection of containers to use for exploring. Again, the adult sits quietly nearby.
There are many benefits to this kind of play, including engaging children in self-discovery and testing hypotheses, developing fine muscle control and hand-eye coordination, and sustaining kids’ curiosity for long periods.
The term “forest school” was coined in England in an attempt to define a type of outdoor learning that originated in Scandinavia and Germany, where being outdoors is an intrinsic part of family life. Forest schools are rooted in the work of Friedrich Fröbel (the inventor of kindergarten), and they create opportunities for young children to develop and learn outdoors.
There’s no singular type of forest school: Some are based in woodlands; others have an indoor classroom in a wooded area and use the natural environment as a starting point for learning. Forest schools were first introduced in the Seattle area in 2008, when Erin Kenny opened the Cedarsong Nature School on Vashon Island, the first of its kind in the U.S. Since then, the movement has grown rapidly.
In the U.S., forest schools are commonly referred to as nature schools. Their practices vary widely, but they share a set of core principles:
- Learning takes place outdoors in a natural environment for a significant part of the day in any kind of weather.
- The adult’s role is to assist and support the children, rather than teach them via direct learning.
- Commercial toys are not used; most of the learning materials come from the natural environment.
This self-directed, unstructured play method lets children make choices, take risks and use their imaginations. It is a key tenet of many educational philosophies, including Waldorf (Rudolf Steiner), Reggio Emilia and Montessori.
In this type of play, children are believed to be fully capable. Rather than directing play with a particular goal, adults provide general support. Tom Hobson, a Seattle preschool teacher and author of the Teacher Tom blog, explains the method this way: ‘‘One thing I don’t do is decide what the children will learn on this or any day. That’s not the job of a teacher in a play-based curriculum; that’s the job of the children. My job is primarily to create an environment, then play with them in it — helping them, but only when they really need it.”
Anne Deenenzo created Romp, a Bellevue play center that encourages child-initiated play, after struggling to find places to take her son. ‘‘I felt the need to create an indoor space where [the] left and right brain were held in equal regard, a place deeply rooted in early childhood development that provides ample opportunity for child-led unstructured play, but also a place for community and sharing,” she says.
Resources for Infant Educarers
Resources for Infant Educarers (RIE) is an international nonprofit founded in 1978 by infant specialist and educator Magda Gerber and pediatric neurologist Tom Forrest, M.D.
Focused on ages 0–3, RIE is based on the belief that children learn everything through play, and adults should enable play to happen in a child-directed manner. This starts with creating a safe space in which passive toys or household items are set out in a way that invites kids to play. Gerber taught that adults should give only minimal direction, except when safety may be an issue.
The cornerstone of RIE is a respectful relationship between parent and child. Rather than tell kids what to do, adults should encourage them to express themselves in their own way. “A solid relationship of trust, where children are free to make mistakes, allows children to play in ways where they can test and prove their competence socially, emotionally, physically and cognitively,” explains RIE educator Nicole Siciliano, MSW.
RIE is the latest parenting craze in Hollywood (a recent Vanity Fair article on the subject quotes actors Jamie Lee Curtis and Hank Azaria), but the approach also has its critics. No toys? Really? “It may seem weird to some,” Siciliano says, “but if we want children to grow up to be authentic and competent adults, then we need to start viewing them as authentic and competent children ... [they] don’t need — and really don’t want — expensive toys or gadgets.”
Free play helps to nurture resilient, independent and creative children, but above all, it’s fun. The approaches outlined here may not be for everyone, but consider adopting elements of them, perhaps by encouraging a connection with nature, reducing the number of commercial toys in your home or simply scheduling time for play.