Play and Kids with ACEs: “That’s Where Everything Is Worked Out”

Play and Kids with ACEs: “That’s Where Everything Is Worked Out”

It’s too bad we don’t
have a branch of the award-winning Outdoor Play and Learning  (OPAL) here in the United States. This
UK-based nonprofit — created to transform kids’ opportunities to play at
school — has enjoyed a warm reception at home and in Austria, Australia,
Canada, the Czech Republic, Poland, and Hungary, among others.

Between trips around the UK and France, OPAL director Michael Follett took the time to discuss the importance of play with Stress Health.

We’re curious: What kind of play did you enjoy as a child?

As a child, I mainly enjoyed having the freedom to roam with my
friends or my dog. I would travel up to three miles from home by the age of
eleven. We did the usual stuff, building damns and dens and exploring. At
sixteen I was off exploring in France with my friend on our bikes. The world
was there to explored in play, and for me that has never really stopped.

Why is play so important for children?

Play is
the way mammals are programmed to learn everything that cannot be taught and is
integral to all aspects of development. The more intelligent a species,
the greater the role of play in its
early years of development. 

From a
child’s perspective, play is what they do when everyone else stops telling them
what to do. It is a process that is freely chosen by the child, directed by the
child and carried out for the child’s own motivation. The play cycle is a
self-driven series of actions sparked by children’s very nature, which draws
them to deeply engage a series of actions, reactions
and further investigations into every aspect of existence.
Adults view play as the messing about between the important stuff we
do to them; children know that play is the most important activity of childhood
and is disrupted by all the stuff adults try to do to them.

How can play help children who have experienced trauma?

Play is where everything is worked out. Stories are played over, repeated and changed. Like the Medieval Lords of Misrule, children turn the power structure of the adult world on its head to become the power holders and directors of their own experience. The trauma of life can be repeated in play and so made safer, more manageable and less shocking.

Play is not all lovely and fun. It is a messy laboratory where experiments can be made in safety. Not all trauma can be worked through in play, but certain kinds of play, including Deep Play and Mastery Play as described in Hugh’s Taxonomy of Play Types, can allow children time to playfully explore life, death, injury, anger, loss and powerlessness.  When children are deprived of plentiful self-directed opportunities to experience all of the play types, they lose potential pathways to fully grow, develop and heal.

Video of one 45-minute playtime at St. Michael’s Catholic Primary School in Surrey after 18 months of working with OPAL Outdoor Play and Learning.

What’s the best way for adults to enter into a small or older child’s play world? What are some common mistakes we adults make?

the world of play for adults is a privilege, not a right. Children
have the keys, so the entry is strictly by invitation only. Look watch, observe
and reflect about what you are seeing. If you are lucky enough to be invited
in, treat the play with the respect it deserves. Don’t break the flow with
your constrained adult perspectives — and leave as soon as
it is clear your presence is no longer required.

The younger children
are, the more likely you will be invited into their play. The older
children are, the more likely that your very presence or proximity
will adult-erate or even annihilate the play cycle. If you want to
enter a young child’s play world, get on the floor, provide an interesting and
varied play environment and watch. When the child wants you to interact, they
will let you know. Follow — don’t lead — and don’t try to instruct. That is
teaching, which is something else – in play you are there to learn from them,
not the other way around. 

How can families make it easier for kids to play?

If families want
to support children’s play, they need to create the right habitat and then it
will happen. 

  • Create
    times, away from technology with no
    demands, preferably outdoors 
  • Create
    or find spaces that are rich in cheap junk resources or sand, wood, water
    and mud — that they can move them around and use them in any way they
  • Back
    off. Let them take some risks, make some mistakes and get dirty. 

What are some of the advantages of outdoor play?

beings have a massive affinity to nature and to the outdoors. Good mental
health is not possible for mammals that are kept locked up indoors. In the UK
animals have more right to time and space outdoors [than children]. It is
probably the same in the US. 

The most important learning experiences in early childhood are what is called primary experience. That is, first-hand, sense-based exploration of the material, social, cultural and physical realms, through behaviours where the child is the agent of their own discovery. The indoor world is unchanging, unnatural and uniform. The outside word is rich, varied, big, ever-changing, and natural, and it provides a never-ending set of possibilities. The only reason any early years’ education takes place indoors is for the convenience and comfort of adults and is not to do with effective child development or well-being. 

Kids balancing on tires and stumps

What about rough play?

and tumble is the type of play that enables children to learn about
the possibilities and limitations of their bodies. It’s about the joy
of physical proximity and contact with others and about
learning emotional empathy through reading the signals
others give us. It is as essential in young humans as it is in puppies or any
young animal. Rough and tumble is not fighting and is not conflict, although
the abstract representation of both may be present, and it can occasionally
lead on to both. 

cannot learn to self-regulate if we always take away
the opportunities for them to do so for fear that they do not have
the skills. All skills and literacy require practice. Physical literacy is
bound together with emotional literacy, and its development requires
much more than P.E. and prescribed movements, it is requires
understanding and practiing issues of physicality, consent
and control. The safe way to develop these skills is through and rough and
tumble play.  

Why are adults often so self-conscious playing with children?

children play, they enter what play workers call “flow”. They suspend
their belief in the ordered and know world of adults and are able to fully
enter a world where anything is possible, nothing is known, and the current
moment of involvement is everything. Adults’ brains are not fluid or plastic
enough to truly enter this state. Children’s brains are constantly building new
and uncharted neural networks, and this is something that adults cannot
replicate. As a result, adults will always retain a degree of self-awareness of
their play which children will not have.

OPAL has documented remarkable changes in the schools it has worked with, including happier children and staff, fewer behavior problems, and better collaboration and learning. But why does OPAL focus on schools, and what kind of play habitat does it encourage?

Childhood has changed, and we can no longer assume that any
child is able to experience full and rich play opportunities outside of school. OPAL’s role is to create culture
change in schools. We create a culture where play is understood, valued,
planned for, resourced and continually improved. To do this we must work with
the entire school community, which includes parents.

play requires the right habitat to thrive. These are: 

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Time – when no demands or objectives are present.
Spaces – which are messy, varied and rich in movable objects and; Permission – the permission to get hurt, get dirty and make do your own thing for your own reasons.


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