Children need more than open spaces to explore; they need adults who TRUST them to explore those spaces with freedom.
— Daniel Burton

Hi Nature Lovers, 

Let’s chat about PLAY.

By now, we all can agree that play is an essential element in a child’s development. We can all agree that play is natural, important, essential, and sadly disappearing from our children’s daily lives. As advocates of play, we are often eager to jump to the rescue, interjecting ourselves into children’s imaginative narratives, offering well-intentioned suggestions for characters, plot twists, and lessons on how to best use materials. Their play should to be bubbling with joy, excitement, new toys, and extravagant narratives, and we want to HELP!


It is our instinct as parents, educators, and caring adults to want to create and manage children’s play to match our expectations of what we THINK is best and to protect them from possible danger, boredom, or arguments with friends. Now let’s pause and ask some major questions here before we continue - Is this method of play teaching our children how to be creative problem solvers, inventors, or masters of their toys and materials? Are they learning to sit with that uncomfortable feeling of being “bored” and discover something magical on the other side? Are they even PLAYING, if you tell them what to do, say, and feel? The resounding answer to all of these questions is NO, and the answer will continue to be a NO unless we learn to make ourselves SMALL in our children’s play.

Are they even PLAYING, if you tell them what to do, say, and feel?

Let’s make this very clear: being small in children’s play does not mean to disappear completely or ignore their questions, comments, or creativity. This means being a support to their creativity & problem solving, offering encouragement instead of answers. For example, when a child asks you to draw a tree, let them know how curious you are to see their drawing of a tree. Maybe you can draw a collaborative tree or ask questions about what parts of a tree they want to include in their drawing! (Their tree may be purple squiggle in a sea of yellow and THAT IS OK! Never tell a child their artistic interpretation of an object doens’t look like that object.) If they seem completely lost with a specific exploration, ask guiding questions to help them discover the steps to dive deeper into their wonder. This will create more meaningful play than if you just told them exactly what to do to complete the task.


How exactly does an adult become small in a play landscape?

Here are a few tips to help you navigate this wild world of independent play (hopefully, outside!) :

  • Set your child up for success by setting some boundaries and expectations around their play. This could be about the location, time frame, materials, or friends participating in the play.

  • If possible, offer diverse, open-ended materials in the play environment to enhance their imaginative play and their interaction with the landscape & each other.

  • Only step in to ask guiding questions or questions that help them assess their safety in a situation. “Does your body feel safe on that branch?” “What is your plan for getting down?”

  • Let them make mistakes! Invite them to engage with the materials & landscape in ways that may be messy, uncomfortable & frustrating. Use guiding questions to help them connect cause & effect, instead of simply telling the child to STOP the behavior. “How did touching that cold mud make your hands feel? Are their ways to play with the mud without getting your gloves wet & cold?”

  • Give them the time & space to solve problems on their own. This includes stepping in to resolve arguments that naturally arise throughout a child’s play. Pause, listen, & respond to an argument only if absolutely necessary.

  • When you are playing one on one with a child, constantly evaluate your role in the narrative. Are you asking guiding, open-ended questions for the child to answer to help develop the narrative or are you simply making up the narrative yourself?

This new play approach may take some time for both of you to ease into and may even come as a complete shock to your child. “Wait? I have to figure out what to play?” Remain consistent in your encouragement of independent play, and you will soon be rewarded with more and more moments of creative wonder & awe from your child that are separate from your input. TRUST in their ability to explore, invent, build, grow, and learn, guided by their own curiosity!

First challenge: Hand your child a pile of sticks, ask them what they want to do with the sticks, and step aside to observe the magic of play!