Go Out and Play
This fall, K-6 students at a school down the street were treated to new playground equipment and seeing it made my heart sing. Instead of the typical schoolyard arrangement where the equipment told you what to do—here is a slide, you slide on it; here is a swing, you swing on it—the new installation invites free and perhaps even wild play.
Rocks and craggy boulders are placed randomly, trees are planted here and there, some in a row, some like a forest. There are several large mounds of dirt and tires are embedded in the grass, these horizontally, those vertically. What to play, how to play?
Well, in my elementary school in Steinbach, Manitoba, there was a wooded area that I played in every recess with a handful of other girls. It was a kind of tag, hide-and-go-seek, prisoners’ base, improvised skit we referred to as “Witchy.” It changed every recess, but the gist of it was that a certain tree was designated as the Witchy’s tree, where innocents could be lured, Hansel-and-Gretel style, or tricked like Snow White, hypnotized by a touch, or in a daring World War II fashion imprisoned after an exciting escape plan to free comrades was foiled. The cast of characters was fluid, as the girl who was Witchy changed from day to day and those captured could join the dark side or remain loyal allies. Sometimes there were two Witchy trees, as a splinter group set off on its own—sort of like Mennonite churches.
A UK paper, Free Play in Early Childhood, looks at aspects of unstructured play, saying, “Cross-cultural research suggests that children enact cultural-specific themes, reflecting activities and values that are important within specific communities.” Yup, there was a lot of culture in the wooded area, from pop culture to fables and myths to old movies and current religious battles.
At the new playground installation here, I was immediately drawn to a large and sharp boulder. If I were smaller, it would be perfect to hide behind, like in a cave, or climb on top of, becoming a castle or snow-covered mountain range. I was pleased with its cragginess, with so many footholds and grab holds, perfect for scrambling up. Also, its element of danger: cuts and bruises from bumps and falls are more than likely. Even the trees are dangerous, pointy and scratchy, being small evergreens with low branches. The UK study argues that being allowed to take risks is an essential part of the ongoing process of becoming at home in the world: “Without this, children grow up lacking confidence in their own physical ability.”
And the mounds of dirt will get you dirty, guaranteed. I saw evidence of footholds dug into one and wondered what it had become: maybe a house with stairs, maybe the children digging in it had turned into puppies. With the copious lovely dense, wet snow we get in Terrace, those mounds will become epic snow forts.
One winter, when the kidling was about eight years old, we built a snow dragon that went all around the house. His specialty for solo art was snow goons, with arms sticking up menacingly and angry eyes.
Can I go out and play? I think I will go next door to borrow the neighbour’s toddler girl to build snow forts—no, wait! Snow thrones encrusted with jewels (rocks) and filigree (sticks), one for her and one for her dog. Call me in for supper, or else we can call it a day when the streetlights come on.