Programming play environments… it always necessary?


I started to do some research this morning in searching for another unusual place to play for my blog series, as I typed the terms beach and playspace into Google what came back were endless formal playspace projects (and some of them nature playspaces too) on coastal foreshores and it dawned on me that we don’t really look at environments like the beach solely for what they have to offer for play on their own.

I have had several conversations over the past year with the chief executive of Play Australia around this idea that we (and by ‘we’ I mean adults mostly) don’t seem to see environments for what they are and the potential they hold for play, unless the environment is directed or planned by a professional. Play Streets, Bush Pre-Schools and even my very own Creative Cubby Project are examples of this. So now I’m curious as to why this is? How have we come to this? And mostly what impact does it have on children?

A keen observer of human behaviour, I pondered this a while and came to the conclusion that it harks back to the old chestnut’s of control, risk and freedom.

We have always programmed outdoor environments for children in pre-school because of a duty of care and a need to demonstrate children’s progress in learning and development. School environments are slightly more interesting as children don’t tend to be programmed much outdoors, except through sports and physical activity, though grounds are still littered with ball courts, play equipment, seating and the like. This however is children’s formal time, so what happens in their informal time? Traditionally their time for play?

Restriction on back yards for play, independent mobility and adult-free time again are the main protagonists in this scenario, as we have shifted from children wandering, exploring, creating and just ‘being’ in their local environments to a combination of programmed time (sport, ballet, music, cubs, gym etc.) and a lot more indoor time in what is perceived a safe, controlled and supervisable environment. Don’t get me wrong either organised activities and groups are highly valuable in terms of teaching specific skills, having fun and being introduced to different social settings. It’s just that it shouldn’t be all the time.

Screened on the ABC in early 2016, Frantic Family Rescue saw ‘slow movement guru’ Carl Honore work with 3 Australian families to slow down their lives and prioritize spending quality time together in 4 weeks. All families involved were leading highly programmed lives with a lot of shuffling in cars between activities. Of particular interest was Anna a single mum with two young children, 8 and 4 years old. Despite the designated ‘slow down’ tasks and working closely with Carl, Anna was completely unable to resist programming her eldest son Jamie’s every waking hour with music lessons, sport and extra maths tutoring. In the end she sadly quit the program. I’m certain many of us have a little to a lot of Anna in us, we want our kids to succeed, do well in life and be happy. But is that more about our needs?

What does it mean for our kids not to have the freedom to interact with environments on their own terms? Well by my observations it means that kids today don’t have the opportunity to truly explore and uncover environments without a pre-conceived purpose or outcome. They are also restricted in their capacity to territorialise their local neighbourhood and to build their own song lines or stories throughout that neighbourhood. They miss out on that opportunity to build true independence, independence where they are the prime decision makers, negotiators and imaginative creators. 

So back to the beach we go. My overall point is that we don’t need to program all environments. In fact as we’ve just discussed there’s huge benefit that children gain from unstructured time, all we need to do is resist the need to control the situation and have the courage to give our kids the freedom, time and space they need. Environments like the beach remind us all how much value there is in spending lots of time outdoors in nature. As they come sand and water are two of the best play activities for physical activity, creativity, imagination and socialising there are.

Lets try more to let kids ‘be’ rather then ‘do’ into the future. That’s play at its best.