With the nicer weather, we are spending more and more time at parks and playgrounds.
Today, as I watched the many, many, MANY children playing in our neighborhood park, I started thinking about the benefits of this kind of unstructured, outdoor play for children.
But let me back up just a bit. Why are kids outside so much in the first place?
My personal opinion is that being outdoors is a Finnish core value. Finns are great lovers of the outdoors--no matter what the weather. I mean, consider outer clothing for children (see blog posts here and here). It is designed to make it possible for children to...be outside, get dirty and have fun.
Rob writes about recess for students in one of his latest blog posts. Joey and Sam have 2 -3 recesses each day. Many of the kids I see at the playground are there with a preschool, kindergarten, daycare or grade school. When a daycare takes a group of kids to the playground, it isn't just a brief visit. Kids are there for a long period of time. They play in the sand. They play on the playground equipment. They sled in the winter. They run. They climb. Being outside is an important, substantial part of their day.
As I watch kids play, I can see many benefits of this kind of play.
First, kids here are very creative in their play. I think my kids are creative. And, I am a park mom. I take my kids to playgrounds and open green space a lot--but they usually rely on ME to direct their fun:
-Sharks and minnows? I'm the shark.
-Hide and go seek? I'm the seeker.
-Just plain running around and playing on the equipment? "Mom, look at me. Mom watch what I can do. Mom, look how fast I can..."
But today, I watched several Finnish kids as they played. One took a play broom and swept the footprint for a house into the pebbles of the playground. Another took the broom and attached it to one of the tricycles set out for kids to use and fashioned a sort of primitive street sweeper. Still another child used the broom in a more typical setting and swept out the little house at the top of the slide.
(On the flip side, I rarely see Finnish parents playing with their children on the playground. I guess there is a fine line!)
Second, I notice a lot of children with incredible upper body strength and really well-developed gross motor skills. I've watched many kids shimmy their way up the frame of the swingset and dangle from the bar on top that holds the swings.
Obviously a third benefit is the socialization they get from so much unstructured play time. I rarely see kids fighting at the playground. I see them take turns. I see them share. I see these playground skills reflected in daily, adult life on public transportation, while waiting in line at the Posti or the grocery store...pretty much in everything I do here. After all the adults were once children on the playground too!
I think it's important to add, by the way, that there isn't tons of supervision and adult intervention on the playground either. In fact, I think in the U.S., all of our rules would take the fun out of a typical day at the Finnish playground! I can hear it now..."too many kids/not enough supervision; not enough structured activity; kids are getting too dirty; it's too dangerous to climb to the top of the swingset...no climbing allowed...too spinny, kids will throw up." (I actually heard this last one when I helped design a playground in Chicago--the kids wanted a tire swing, but I was told NO NEW tire swings will be added to Chicago playgrounds. They make kids throw up.)
"Ah phooey" is all I have to say!