Many adults remember playing unsupervised in forests near their home, risking life and limb to get to the top of a tree, build a fort or ford a stream.
But today’s children don’t have the opportunity, and with technology so ubiquitous, have lost their connection with nature in favour of connections with tablets, smartphones and computers.
At least that’s the concern of groups now advocating for children’s right to play and their need to explore wild spaces or play with things not usually considered toys, such as wood, hammers and nails or cardboard and glue, dirt and water.
“The best fun for kids is getting messy,” says Kirsten Anderson, a Coquitlam mother of two pre-teen boys who is the former owner of the Village Toy Shop and recently has started Integrate Play Solutions helping companies solve problems using play strategies from Lego Serious Play.
As a student of play and the best strategies for engaging children and adults in playfulness, Anderson has watched the pendulum swing from technological toys to natural play. She now believes that children are spending too much time in structured activities and on screens and need to spend more time in forests, along stream banks and making up their own games.
“We can’t keep kids in bubbles, constantly supervising them,” Anderson said, citing research that shows that over-stretched children are becoming stressed out and anxious.
The benefits of playing in nature or making up games using recycled materials, for example, are numerous, Anderson says, including strengthening motor skills, improving understanding of risk, problem solving, communication, enhancing creativity and imagination, engineering, releasing stress, and even boosting immunity.
To encourage professionals working with children, politicians, park planners and parents to think about alternatives to structured, supervised play, Anderson has organized a discussion night for the community.
Taking place on Tuesday, Sept. 5 from 6-9:30 p.m. at the David Lam Douglas College Lecture Hall, A1470, the event will feature two documentary films, one from the UK on Project Wild Thing, a look at how children’s play has changed, and The Land, about an adventure playground.
Can children really be left alone to play, what happens if they get hurt?
While it seems counter intuitive, children can and do hurt themselves in so-called “safe” games because they want to push things to the limits.
“Adding more risk actually reduces injury,” Anderson said.
Two experts on outdoor risky play for children will also be on hand to participate in a panel discussion: Dr. Helen Little, a senior lecturer from Macquarie University in Sidney, Australia, and Mariana Brussoni, associate professor with the department of paediatrics at the University of BC and investigator with BC Children’s Hospital.
Also speaking will be representatives from the UK-based charity Pop-Up Adventure Play who are on a cross-country tour teaching Canadian educators and community leaders about how to increase opportunities for adventure play.
Anderson said giving children more freedom to explore and play doesn’t have to be expensive. At her children’s Baker Drive elementary school, a day of play with cardboard, glue and other loose items organized in February was wildly successful, she said, and will likely be held again.
Local parks are also good places to start to give children more time for unsupervised, creative play, she said, citing Coquitlam’s new Rochester Park playground and the playground at Lions Park in Port Coquitlam as two good examples.
“I wish every single playground had this,” Anderson says, as she watches kids get messy playing in water and sand at the PoCo park.
“This whole idea of adventure playgrounds is starting to grow in the US, where it’s completely litigious, then we can do it here. A lot of it is community based, grass roots.”
• Tickets for the adventure playgrounds and nature play event are available on Eventbrite