Our visitors are now fed and watered. They should have plenty of things to choose to do. For families, one of the options is for the children to play for a while, either with or without their parents’ participation. Play provides an important opportunity for children to learn about themselves, their limitations and the world around them. This may be more beneficial than taking children, particularly small ones, along with parents on a hike, where they might become bored, overtired or frustrated.
Quite a lot of research into children’s play and its place in the outdoors was conducted in Britain in the mid-1980s by the Forestry Commission and the Countryside Commission for Scotland. This has since been developed and more experience of its provision gained by providers of outdoor recreation, particularly in Britain.
Many people think of play as a physical activity, letting off steam and getting rid of surplus energy. This concept gave rise to many municipal play areas that used to be, and many still are, just collections of equipment for swinging, sliding and climbing. Most recent research suggests that this is too simple a view, and that play fulfils more important aspects of a child’s development. The natural environment presents an ideal setting for play, which should not be overlooked.
In observing children’s play—and they do this either as a natural response or by learning from each other – three broad types emerge:
– Motor play is physical activity, such as running, jumping, swinging and climbing. The activities help to develop robust hearts and lungs, and strong, flexible muscles. They encourage children to be fit and healthy.
– Social play occurs as children learn to interact with one another in social situations. There are four levels at which social play occurs. The first is solitary play, in which the child plays on his or her own and with their own materials. The second is parallel play, where the child is with other children and playing alongside them. They may share materials but they do not influence what each other does. The third level is associated play. Here all the children are engaged in a similar activity, communicating about it and sharing materials. However, there is no sense of organization amongst the children or a goal to what they are doing. Fourthly, co-operative play can develop, in which the children organize themselves as a group to participate in a particular activity. Some will emerge as leaders, others will be more or less content to follow that lead.
– Cognitive play occurs when the child begins to learn about his or her relationship with the environment and various cause and effect relationships. This may involve physical effects that can be repeated, or ones where there is some uncertainty and unpredictability involved. Children use this play to develop and perfect aspects of their behaviour.
It is rare for play solely to encompass one of these types: usually they are blended together to a greater or lesser degree. Team games like football consist of lots of physical activity, the social interaction involved with co-operative play, and the development and practice of skills with a cause and effect nature. An activity such as constructing a tree house has a similar mixture. The activity requires the social organization of a task between several children, physical activity in fetching materials and climbing about in the tree, and the development of an understanding about materials, how they fit together, the use of tools and so on. In the right circumstances, when provided with the right stimuli, the play can be constructive as described above.
Children play in different ways at different ages. This needs to be taken into account when considering how to provide play opportunities, as otherwise some age groups may be frustrated. The different stages of play can be described as follows:
– Functional play dominates play from 0 to 2 years, and generally starts with simple, repeated actions. Children learn what a different action does, and they repeat it until it is perfected. Later they are pleased with the results of their action. Simple activities of a motor variety and objects to be carried, dropped or thrown should satisfy the early stages. Later such play remains important, but it is subsumed into more complex play. The levels of skill required to become adept at new functions are higher.
– Constructive play develops from functional play. Instead of merely repeating actions, the child begins to use materials in a more creative way: for example, building rudimentary sandcastles rather than just filling and emptying buckets of sand. The constructive aspect can be nurtured by providing materials that allow children to build, demolish, alter and rebuild. There should be sufficient materials and equipment for use by a number of children at a time. The natural environment is full of potential materials for constructive play.
– Symbolic play. Once children begin to talk they can use words and images in play. The world of make-believe and imaginary situations develops, through which they can explore conflicts and needs. This helps to develop an understanding of the environment and how it can be managed. Without this experience, their capacity to anticipate and adapt to changing circumstances is lessened.
– Role play. This is believed to contribute to social, creative and cognitive skills. The child pretends to be different people in different situations together with others. The situations might be ones already experienced by the children, or entirely make-believe.
– Rule games. Children eventually become able to organize their experiences into logical concepts, and they become
interested in games with rules. These range from board games to team games out on the sports field. Children can make up their own rules, but unless they are supervised or have some way of keeping to the rules, disputes can occur and frustration can develop. Rule games become popular from around the age of 6 years.
– Co-operative play is the most fully developed type of play (see above). This play needs opportunities and facilities such as open areas or structures that will accommodate several children at a time. Solitude remains a valuable asset, and children may want to go off to a quiet place on their own to reflect on things or pursue a solitary activity.
From this it is clear that most of the basic requirements and skills of adulthood are to be found in children’s play. Hence providing for play can be an important part of a recreation experience.
The outdoors supplies some wonderful opportunities for play. There is a great range of new environments, features, materials and wildlife to see and explore. This exploration can help children to relate to nature and to learn and understand about food, shelter, reproduction and death, as well as how to respect and care for nature. There are several major advantages that the outdoors can offer to the principles of children’s play.
Most children experience primitive fears, such as being alone, being in the dark, falling, monsters or wild animals, loud noises, or getting lost. In a natural area that parents know is safe, the child can explore these natural fears and experiment with the feelings they produce. In this way children can be more easily prepared to face life’s dangers. An outdoor recreation area is a good substitute for the home neighbourhood, which may be physically dangerous, for example because of heavy traffic, so that children may not be allowed out to explore their local area.
Getting to know your way around, finding the way between places and the mental mapping needed for this can be developed by experiencing different parts of the landscape, such as landforms, vegetation, rocks or water. Places with winding paths, no street names and different components from the urban setting can help with this.
Children can be as prone as adults to the over-stimulation given by urban settings. The wilder places can help them to wind down and increase their awareness of other things, where to get wet or dirty is expected rather than deplored.
The play that children enjoy in the outdoors is much more
likely to be with other members of the family, especially parents who wish to relax and enjoy themselves. This helps in a number of ways. Parents are likely to spend more fun time with their children, and the supervision they provide helps to give the child confidence to test themselves more: climbing higher, jumping further or exploring more scary places. It also means that the play area has to have more challenges for children who still have short attention spans by stimulating their imagination and communication skills. Parents can help children with disabilities to obtain the same thrills as they would normally only watch able children experiencing.