From the Centre: Unstructured play helps to develop imagination

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Neil Ostafichuk is the recreation supervisor at the Creston and District Community Complex.

Remember when mom used to bark at you, “Go outside and play!” and you galloped down the back steps followed by the sound of the deadbolt snicking into place so you indeed had to stay outside and play? Actually I don’t believe the door was ever locked behind me for two reasons: one, because we were free from the Saturday chores of polishing all the furniture or ironing pillowcases and would not return until we heard the yells of, “Neil, dinner!” echoing across the neighbourhood, and two, the words, “Stay outside till I call you,” were more powerful than any deadbolt in the free world.

“Go and play.” We used to know what that meant when we were kids. Hop on your bike, hook up with a friend and like stepping through the wardrobe, you entered a magical world that had more impact on forming who you are today than you may understand. Growing up in the capital of Alberta, our playgrounds were back alleys, train yards, rafting, construction sites and the farm when we happened to go visit grandma and grandpa, which ultimately led to motorbike riding and shooting gophers. By today’s standards, probably pretty bad stuff when you could be quietly sitting on the couch playing video games like Grand Theft Auto and Call of Duty Black Ops. Hmmm. Anyway, being non-judgmental, everything has its place but in fact the radius of play (the distance we were allowed to roam) we had as children was miles, even in a major city, whereas today, it is on average about 150 feet. What happened?

OK, the world can be pretty scary and we want to keep our children safe but on the flip side, children’s unsupervised play is not a luxury, but a crucial aspect of their development. They (you know, them) have identified specific forms of play, each as important as the next in the formation of personality and attributes and just as important to us as adults, as well. Some examples are body play (which can be rough and tumble), pretend play, imaginary play, parallel play (with others), celebratory play, aesthetic (dance, music, art), narrative play (storytelling) and visual play (ceremonial).

The challenge for us as parents is to be able to provide the opportunities for unstructured play but keep our children safe at the same time. Don’t get me wrong; there is also benefit to organization as they get older — hockey, soccer, swimming, gymnastics, Cubs, Brownies, 4-H (you could fill a page with great activities and groups) — but avoiding the erosion of free play at a young age will allow them to come into those organizations with way more tools than one that has been preprogrammed since birth.

At a recent conference we saw the importance of nature in our play, and geographically we are lucky to live in a place where probably a 10-minute walk in any direction will immerse you in flora or fauna, unlike some city cousins who suffer from nature deficit disorder. We have increased our safety of playgrounds by making bigger no-encroachment zones around our swings or “danger” areas, but at the expense of free play spaces. Studies have shown that play equipment sits unused 87 per cent of the time, and we actually saw videos of children at play avoiding the plastic houses and toys that remove much of the need for imagination only to play in around bushes, trees and rocks. It has been shown that children now can’t display imagination similar to what yours was at the same age. Like most complicated issues, there is no easy button to push but a starting place might be to chase them outside every so often and tell them to go play.

Neil Ostafichuk is the recreation supervisor at the Creston and District Community Complex.


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