By Emily Rowe, Teacher and  Forest Schools Practitioner

Watching children engrossed in play is awe-inspiring. I often wish I could find a way back into their world, joining them on their exploration as they forage for food in the rainforest, or assisting them on a daring mountain rescue in the Himalayas or digging a hole to hide their African wild dog puppies.

The way in which these games play out, and the rules that are agreed as the play is in progress is wonderful. The collaboration and cooperation between children is something that many of our world leaders could learn from!

Skills for life

We don’t have a ‘Mountain Rescue’ or ‘Jungle Explorers’ game at home with costumes and instructions, but we have a bowl of conkers collected in the Autumn, a climbing rope, spades, three large imaginations and some free time outside.

I could never have planned the games, or even planned activities that would have given my children the breadth of exploration that they took themselves on.

These games allowed them to use their imaginations, practise their vocabulary, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills, engineering skills, scientific thinking skills, social and emotional skills to name just a few.

In our schools, teachers are under pressure to plan activities that meet a highly prescribed curriculum, albeit one with good intentions, that our children will gain all the skills they need to succeed in the world they inhabit.

But what would it look like if they were allowed more freedom to follow their own interests, where we provide the resources and environment in which they can develop all the skills we hope they will achieve? And how do we go about doing that?

Theory of loose parts play

Architect Simon Nicholson’s journal article, published in 1971, about the theory of loose parts play can help us to answer that question.

He recognised the importance of loose parts in children’s play and believed that

“in any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it.”

More recent research from Dimensions Education Research Foundation, found that children who spend time in well-designed nature-filled outdoor classrooms develop skills across all learning domains.

Transferable skills

If we provide children with a variety of different, quality materials, from sticks and shells to wooden crates and drainpipes, and give them the support, space and freedom to play, they will likely cover a large proportion of the curriculum all by themselves.

And they will do it in a way where they can interact with the environment they are in, with children of all ages and abilities, and gain the self-confidence, self-discovery of their place in that environment, and with those people with whom they share the space. These are all skills that are transferable. 

As parents or teachers, we can respond to their cues, support them to adapt and adopt the elements they need, give them the vocabulary to help them engage further with what they are doing and provide positive feedback.

And hopefully this will empower our children with the creativity they need to succeed both now and in the future.

Click here for more help with loose parts play.