Play and kids with ACEs: ‘That’s where everything is worked out’

by Diana Hembree

Have you ever noticed how little kids often like to play with the cardboard box that a toy comes in longer than they play with the toy itself? The reason: A box can be anything you want it to be.

That doesn’t surprise the group known as Outdoor Play and Learning (OPAL) – a UK-based nonprofit – whose work to make school playgrounds more creative and engaging has something to teach parents as well. Rather than saving up for expensive toys, it encourages us to create spaces for kids “rich in cheap junk resources or sand, wood, water and mud – so they can move them around and use them in any way they want.” We caught up to OPAL director Michael Follett to discuss the importance of outdoor play.

Q. We’re curious: What kind of play did you enjoy as a child?

A: As a child, I mainly enjoyed having the freedom to roam with my friends or my dog. I would travel up to three miles from home by the age of 11. We did the usual stuff, building dams and dens and exploring. The world was there to be explored in play, and for me that has never really stopped.

Q: Why is play so important for children?

A: Play is the way mammals are programmed to learn everything that cannot be taught and is integral to all aspects of development. The more intelligent a species, the greater the role of play in its early years of development.

From a child’s perspective, play is what they do when everyone else stops telling them what to do. It is a process that is freely chosen and directed by the child, which draws them to deeply engage a series of actions, reactions and further investigations into every aspect of existence. Adults view play as the messing about between the important stuff we do to them; children know that play is the most important activity of childhood.

Q: How can play help children who have experienced trauma?

A: Play is where everything is worked out. Stories are played over, repeated and changed. Like the Medieval Lords of Misrule, children turn the power structure of the adult world on its head to become the power holders and directors of their own experience. The trauma of life can be repeated in play and so made safer, more manageable and less shocking.

Play is not all lovely and fun. It is a messy laboratory where experiments can be made in safety. Not all trauma can be worked through in play, but certain kinds of play can allow children time to playfully explore life, death, injury, anger, loss and powerlessness. When children are deprived of plentiful self-directed opportunities to experience all of the play types, they lose potential pathways to fully grow, develop and heal.

Q: What’s the best way for adults to enter into a small or older child’s play world? What are some common mistakes we adults make?

A: Entering the world of play for adults is a privilege, not a right. Children have the keys, so the entry is strictly by invitation only. Look, watch, observe and reflect about what you are seeing. If you are lucky enough to be invited in, treat the play with the respect it deserves. Follow – don’t lead – and don’t try to instruct. That is teaching, which is something else. In play, you are there to learn from them, not the other way around.

The trauma of life can be repeated in play and so made safer, more manageable and less shocking.

The younger children are, the more likely you will be invited into their play. The older children are, the more likely that your very presence or proximity will adult-erate or even annihilate the play cycle. If you want to enter a young child’s play world, get on the floor, provide an interesting and varied play environment and watch. When the child wants you to interact, they will let you know.

Q: How can families make it easier for kids to play?

A: If families want to support children’s play, they need to create the right habitat and then it will happen.

  • Create times, away from technology with no demands, preferably outdoors;
  • Create or find spaces that are rich in cheap junk resources or sand, wood, water and mud – that they can move around and use in any way they want;
  • Back off. Let them take some risks, make some mistakes and get dirty.

Q: What are some of the advantages of outdoor play?

A: Human beings have a massive affinity to nature and to the outdoors. Good mental health is not possible for mammals that are kept locked up indoors. In the UK animals have more right to time and space outdoors [than children]. It is probably the same in the US.

The indoor world is unchanging, unnatural and uniform. The outside word is rich, varied, big, ever-changing, and natural, and it provides a never-ending set of possibilities.

Kids balancing on tires and stumps

Q: What about rough play?

A: Rough and tumble is the type of play that enables children to learn about the possibilities and limitations of their bodies. It’s about the joy of physical proximity and contact with others and about learning emotional empathy through reading the signals others give us. It is as essential in young humans as it is in puppies or any young animal. Rough and tumble is not fighting and is not conflict, although it can occasionally lead on to both.

Children cannot learn to self-regulate if we always take away the opportunities for them to do so for fear that they do not have the skills. All skills and literacy require practice. Physical literacy is bound together with emotional literacy, and its development requires much more than P.E. and prescribed movements; it requires understanding and practicing issues of physicality, consent and control. The safe way to develop these skills is through rough and tumble play.

Q: OPAL has documented remarkable changes in the schools it has worked with, including happier children and staff, fewer behavior problems, and better collaboration and learning. But why does OPAL focus on schools, and what kind of play habitat does it encourage?

A: Childhood has changed, and we can no longer assume that any child is able to experience full and rich play opportunities outside of school. OPAL’s role is to create culture change in schools. We create a culture where play is understood, valued, planned for, resourced and continually improved. To do this we must work with the entire school community, which includes parents.

Good play requires the right habitat to thrive. These are:

  • Time – when no demands or objectives are present;
  • Spaces – which are messy, varied and rich in movable objects and;
  • Permission – the permission to get hurt, get dirty and do your own thing for your own reasons.

Diana Hembree is a science writer for the Center for Youth Wellness. She is an award-winning journalist who has worked at Time Inc., the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Energy Bioscience Institute and has written or edited for Forbes, HealthDay, the Washington Post, PBS Frontline, Vibe and many other places. She can be reached at stresshealthnow@centerforyouthwellness.org.