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  • Gabriel Vieira

The importance of free play

It's bright and sunny this morning, after yesterday’s dramatic thunderstorm and several days of foggy, muggy wetness. The light is streaming into the “office”, our slightly tongue-in-cheek name for this quirky, adorable building. Made from pallets and assorted construction waste by an Earthaven founder, this small shack houses our collection of useful school supplies, blankets and cushions, and musical instruments. Although it's tiny, and perhaps not as structurally sound as could be desired, this little building has been one of the great blessings of our Forest Garden campus. It’s given me a little nook to regroup and get my head together, and it’s been a nice refuge for various kids in moments of overwhelm. In an outdoor program, a little bit of infrastructure goes a long way.


Over the break, Deborah came and helped me sort, organize, and label all the supplies, making things accessible and easy to keep in order. We also set up a bookshelf at kid height and crammed it full of an eclectic assortment of books on various topics, the seed form, perhaps, of the school library of my dreams. Having just a few useful items, a little bit of inspiration, and a few tools to work with and having it all accessible and organized seems to be making a big difference in the kid’s choices of how to spend their free time, encouraging reading, research, and art projects, in addition to creek play, wrestling, and running around.


Following the energy of summer and acting on the inspiration and shift of perspective that came about for me during the recent Reaching Nature Connection conference, I’ve changed our schedule to include a big chunk of free play time in each day. I realized that not having free play time meant that I was constantly in the role of telling everyone what to do, and that role doesn’t give me the freedom to creatively engage with the kids as a mentor.


When the kids are engaged in activities that they have freely chosen, that frees me up to observe their play, track their learning and development, and find creative ways to nudge them in a positive direction. In that role, I have so many more options to influence their behavior and their learning. If I see a group of kids who seem to be edging towards conflict, I can simply move my body closer to them. Usually this is enough to head off a conflict before it gets going. If I see a kid drifting without anything to engage in, I can suggest an activity, or ask another kid to invite them into something, or start doing something myself that might catch their interest, or just sit back and watch and see what happens.


This unstructured time also gives me the opportunity to model activities that the kids might get interested in. When I started working on a color wheel the other day, several kids sat next to me enraptured, and over the next two days at least two kids had made their own color wheels. In addition to the content, this activity also modeled process skills such as choosing and taking care of materials, attending to details of shape and layout, and using books for research (I looked up the activity in a reference book from the school library).


This freedom is exciting and inspirational for me, and because the kids are generally excited about what they’re doing, I don’t have to deal with their resistance and frustration and can focus on coming up with ways to enrich their learning experience. And it all feels well timed, with the lazy, open-sky energy of late summer calling my body and theirs into a more open-ended awareness, and a learning process that focuses on freedom, relaxation, and fun.





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