Last year I had a unique opportunity to teach a group of 'special needs' children at Gradale Academy. I was the only teacher and there was minimal supervision, so for an entire year, I decided to take the kids outside for mostly unstructured play time two hours a day.
At first, I tried to teach them the names of trees, play games, learn about the pond life.but all these kids wanted to do was play on their own. The age of the kids was grade 4-6 so 8-12. There were 9 boys and 2 girls.
What happened? They didn't just climb and catch frogs, they learned essential social, emotional, and self regulation strategies, they engaged in risky play, learned how to get along, solved their own disputes, made up imagination games, and NEVER GOT BORED!
Some of my favourite members were- the kids found sticks and created forts against some fallen trees. The fallen logs became a highway and their forts were their homes and they named this place downtown. They created an entirely imaginative town and role-played different social figures. One student became the police officer, another was the town mayor etc.. The kids got a long mostly but at times, conflicts happened such as students entering another students home or someone throwing a stick at another student. However, they were able to sort out the fights on their own through active dialogue without me.
Another really great memory was when we discovered a frozen shallow pond and the kids decided they wanted to play hockey with found sticks in nature and used a chunk of ice for the puck. The kids played this game for HOURS.
What did I learn in this year...the more I allowed them free unstructured play as I sat in a quiet area where I could observe them and supervise, they students play got more dynamic, rich, imaginative, creative, and socially driven. The more I asked them to do something specific, they more they had aversion to us being outside.
It taught me how much children crave free unstructured play time and why they need it. It's how children learn and play allows them to be themselves- creative, imaginative, curious, and simply have fun.
If you are a parent or teacher, please give your children as much unstructured play time as possible and enjoy watching what they do!