Unstructured outdoor play in preschool

There's no such thing as a bored child. It is in the moments of doing nothing, those breaks between structured activity, that the child's imagination really has time to come alive.

It's so easy to fill up our children's days. There are so many baby and toddler classes designed to encourage development, and after school classes to promote exercise and social skills. Children move between music and swimming, drama, football, gymnastics and any number of other costly activities, parents stressing over transport, timing and costs. All with the intention of offering our children the best start in life.

The truth is, although these activities may be enjoyable, they are in no way essential to a healthy happy childhood. Children need time to play. They don't need brightly coloured plastic toys, or computer screens to learn and grow, they need open spaces and the freedom to use their imaginations to explore and learn from the world around them.

I often accompany my sons nursery class on trips to the beach. Three hours on the beach with twenty children outside the comfort zone of their classroom can seem a little daunting. Parents have to be repeatedly asked not to give their children buckets and spades for entertainment. They don't need them. Really, they don't. Our little seaside explorers are off in their own little worlds of imagination. Some sit to feel the sand, others head straight for the rocks and pools. The children split into smaller groups and play alongside each other. We hear stories of crabs, and sharks and Pirates. Sticks, shells and pebbles become animated characters or props in a playtime world. 

As adults, we stand back and watch. Sometimes ignored completely, sometimes asked to join the story and play a part. Along the way we learn about the tide, about what floats and sinks, about the animals in the rock pools. These lessons are not forced or asked for, they are just a natural part of play.

It always amazes me how productive little children can be. They are rarely still and the lack of toys does not leave them bored, rather it frees them up to look, feel and really experience the natural world.

Unstructured play can take place anywhere but the outdoors offers extra dimensions to play. There are no walls or doors to restrict movement. No limit to what can be found and used in play. Give a child a stick and you will be utterly amazed at what that stick can become in your child's imaginary world.

Through unstructured play children have the opportunity to explore new ideas, express their feelings in a new environment and explore the many dimensions of social interaction. Through role play children learn to understand the world around them. Experiencing the seasons first hand, touching and seeing the natural world offers a far better learning opportunity than a textbook ever could.

So the next time your child wants to sign up for an afterschool class, or when the weather seems a little too cold or damp for outdoor fun, think again. The world of imagination and play is not just for the spare moments between educational activities. It's an educational experience in itself.

By Susan Lee from Rain-shine – award winning small family business providing quality waterproof clothing to nurseries, schools and groups to allow children the freedom to play outside whatever the weater!

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