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Play - so much more than "just playing"!

What do we actually mean when we use the term play? How much importance do we give to playing? And, how often have we heard the phrase “they’re just playing”? I’d like to start by saying that there is simply no such thing as “just playing”!


We happily use the term ‘play’ when referring to what children do when they are free to choose how they spend their time. We now know that play plays an important and critical role in child development, it is how children develop the skills they need to develop for use in later life. It is every child’s human right to play. In other words, play is as important to a child as a right to education and to be safe from violence.

According to Play Scotland, "play encompasses children’s behaviour which is freely chosen, personally directed and intrinsically motivated”.


Play is nature’s way of ensuring young children acquire the skills they need to acquire, in order to develop into successful adults.

Developmental psychologist, Peter Grey PhD (whose book “Free to Learn” I cannot recommend enough!) has given play 5 characteristics: Play is self-chosen and self-directed; it is an activity in which the means are more valued than ends; it has structure, or rules, which are not dictated by physical necessity but emanate from the minds of the players; it is imaginative, non-literal, mentally removed in some way from “real” or “serious” life; it involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind.


Through his own research in young mammals and children in hunter-gatherer communities, Dr Grey concludes that play is nature’s way of ensuring young children “acquire the skills they need to acquire, in order to develop into successful adults.” For example, conflict negotiation, creativity, and the value of autonomy and independence. If we look at other young mammals, we see them playing and experimenting with skills the adult would need in the wild e.g. hunting, chasing and catching.

Studies have also found examples of children who have been through significant trauma reenacting events in order to try and process them. Children in concentration camps during the second world war could be seen playing out scenarios that they had witnessed. What an amazing gift - mother nature has created play as a way of dealing with difficult feelings and emotions. As adults, we may find ourselves talking about events that trouble us, for children, they play.

Free play at Forest School

It is important for Forest School programmes to have a significant amount of time allocated to free play. We want to promote the holistic development of all children by allowing them to develop their resilience, confidence, independence, creativity in a space where they are free and safe to do so. The fact that play is freely chosen and intrinsically motivated gives children the opportunity to develop in their own way, at their own pace. This is further supported by the fact that forest school is a long term process as it gives children a chance to really develop these critical skills by building on them week after week. As a personally directed activity, play also strongly supports the child-led approach to learning, which is so much richer and more effective than top-down teaching which takes place when directed by an adult.


Risky Play!

Children have a natural, intrinsic curiosity which drives them to take risks. Often, adults, in their quest to protect children, can actually inadvertently hinder this important step of a child’s development. Forest School supports ‘risky play’. These opportunities often present themselves during activities such as climbing trees, jumping from logs, using tools or lighting fires. It might be worth pointing out here that children are not just given tools or fire lighting equipment without being shown how to use them! And they won’t be able to use them until the Forest School practitioner is happy they have gained the relevant skill to use such equipment. However, managing risks and learning to make decisions are important life-long skills.

If we want our children to grow up and be able to take risks and make decisions, we need to let them practice taking risks and making decisions!

Yes they might hurt themselves or make the ‘wrong’ decision sometimes, but how will they learn if they don’t have a chance to practice? Embedded into this process is another important skill - risk assessment. If adults are constantly telling kids not to do this or that because it is unsafe (or in some cases, perceive something that is unsafe which may actually not be), then, again, how will the children ever actually learn for themselves? As with any new skill, too much interference from a more experienced person, hinders the learning in the learner. Think about the last time you learnt something new, if someone had essentially taken over or micro-managed you and limited your experience of it, would that have helped you learn?


I appreciate it can be hard as an adult in charge of young children to step back and allow them to potentially make a mistake from a risk they’ve taken or a decision they’ve made, but the learning that comes from this is so much deeper for the child than if they’d simply been told. Cue Forest School! Forest Playgroups are a good way for parents to gain confidence in this area, as well as the children. Forest Schools will build on this and as parents are not usually present, children develop their confidence, resilience, ability to support their peers, through these risk-taking activities without the parents having to look on biting their nails!


Thank you for reading!


NLW