Unstructured Outdoor Play Key to Child Development

unstructured play
Alan Gottlieb, Compositive Staff

An interview with pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom on TimberNook’s approach to unstructured outdoor play.

Several years ago, pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom began noticing a disturbing trend: more kids were being referred to her with problems not normally seen in young children. Some had alarmingly poor balance. Others couldn’t tolerate the wind in their faces. Yet others cried or became upset in new situations.

Hanscom’s work experience, combined with research she conducted, led her to an unhappy conclusion: Many children don’t spend nearly enough time outdoors, in unstructured play.

She knew that outdoor free play developed kids’ bodies, minds, and emotions in healthy ways, and the lack of such opportunities threatened to stunt development.

 “…movement through active free play—particularly in the outdoors—is absolutely the most beneficial gift we as parents, teachers, and caregivers can bestow on our children to ensure healthy bodies, creative minds, academic success, emotional stability, and strong social skills,” Hanscom wrote in her 2016 book “Balanced and Barefoot.”

And yet, despite abundant evidence about the benefits of outdoor play, “studies indicate that children’s play habits have changed drastically in the past few decades (Bundy 1997; Juster, Ono, and Stafford 2004). The amount of time children spend in unstructured play has decreased by 50 percent, resulting in children devoting most of their time to indoor activities.”

What has caused, over the years, a steady decrease in outdoor, unstructured play? Hanscom identifies several factors.

One is over-anxious parenting. Concerns that a child might hurt himself, or be put in unsafe situations, prompts some parents to opt for structured afterschool activities like organized sports, art, music or drama classes at the expense of any free time.

Another is the predominance of screens in the lives of kids: TVs, tablets, phones, and computers absorb kids’ attention, are addictive, and free parents from constant supervision of their children.

Schools tend to exacerbate the problem as well, Hanscom concluded.

“It’s vital to rethink our current educational models,” she wrote. “Sitting for long hours at a desk prevents a good portion of children from learning at their full potential. Instead, children benefit if we provide them daily opportunities to get outdoors, engage their senses, and learn through hands-on, exploratory play experiences. Simple changes, such as allowing children to get dirty, providing inexpensive loose parts (sticks, planks, and tires), and having adults play less of a role during free play, are likely to create lasting and powerful changes in our children’s behavior and ability to learn over time.”

Hoping to offset these destructive trends, Hanscom founded an outdoor play organization called TimberNook in 2009. It started in New Hampshire, where Hanscom lives, and has since spread to locations throughout the U.S. and now in Australia and New Zealand.

The centerpiece of TimberNook camps is outdoor play experiences. In an interview with Compositive, Hanscom described these as “a grand scale play experience, moving the body, and challenging the mind, body, and senses all at once.”

For small children, a TimberNook play experience might feature reenacting the story of the Three Little Pigs. The campers might build the three houses out of different materials and then act out the cautionary tale.

Older children might “create a giant chain reaction in the woods,” Hanscom said. “All the materials are there and they design it with no adult involvement. It’s child-led, and the environment inspires the play. At the end of the day, they come home with an experience rather than a product.”

Once the semi-structured experience ends, children have “hours of free play. If they have the space and the time to move, so many good things happen at the body and brain level,” Hanscom said.

TimberNook runs programs of varying lengths throughout the year. There are summer day-camps, but there are also afterschool activities, even birthday parties. There is also a forest program for 4- to 7-year-olds during the school year.

And there is a toddler program, which is designed as much for parents as for their children, as Hanscom describes it. Parents bring their toddlers to TimberNook and “learn how to inspire play at home again, because a lot of these kids are forgetting how to play or not knowing how to play, because they have never had that opportunity. Parents are learning how to step back, let go of those fears, and set up an environment to inspire play.”

Read more: The Case for Creative Play in a Digital World

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