Last month, I presented an online webinar titled, "Natural Spaces: A Place for Positive Youth Development." In it, I talked about four research-based design principles that I believe can improve the ways that our programs connect youth with nature:
1. Situate programs in youths' favorite outdoor spaces
2. Integrate more free play
3. Plan developmentally appropriate environmental learning activities, and
4. Use nature design principles
In this session and others I've presented, the concept of 'free play' in structured programs seems hard for participants to grasp. Free play is not free time. And it is far more than something that only happens in nature-related programming.
Free play is characterized by the following qualities: open-ended, few explicit rules or supervision, and free choice. Questions like these bubble up: "What do you mean?", "What does that look like?" Free play is important, but we seem to lack the concrete, intuitive models to help practitioners visualize integrating it into programming.
Have you seen Caine's Arcade? This video went viral recently getting about 2.7 million YouTube hits in a month. It is a truly inspiring story on multiple levels. It is also a GREAT example of what free play can look like in program settings.
The video tells the story of nine-year-old boy who has a passion for arcade games. He spent his summer at his father's auto parts store designing his own cardboard arcade. Caine started by designing one game with a small basketball hoop and continued to build additional games based on his own experiences at arcades. With one of the games, someone tried it and commented that it was too easy. So Caine re-designed it to be more challenging. He figured out a way to build a claw to grab prizes in another machine. He also developed a "fun pass" that is coded using square roots.
Caine's story is being shared because of a random visit by a struggling film maker, who enjoyed playing the arcade games. He was impressed with Caine's creativity and dedication. Recognizing the need for customers, the filmmaker asked Caine's father if he could document the story, and worked with him to arrange a flash mob to visit the arcade.
This is how free play should look! Our programs should:
- Provide plenty of flexible raw material. The shop where Caine free-played was stocked with boxes, various plastic and metal parts, tickets ... the stuff to build an arcade (or whatever else Caine may have envisioned).
- Create static spaces where play can pause and resume later. Caine did not build the arcade in one day, it was over the course of the summer
- Ensure safety. Caine's dad was in the next room.
- Focus on subjects with enough design complexity to keep young people innovating. Caine started with building one game, then another, then adding tickets, and fun passes.
- Be flexible enough for young people to follow their individual passions. Caine decided what to build, and how to build it.
- Young people need encouragement. Caine appreciated a few visitors. The flash mob was amazing.
From my own practice I know we can fairly easily integrate these kinds of raw materials and thought spaces into our programming. We can also generate the design prompts that initiate and foster free, creative play. Finally, we can also use education technology tools to connect youth passions and creativity with the world around them. Imagine the impact that one casual visitor, who decided to tell Caine's story, has likely had on this child's personal identity.
Do you know other great examples of youth programming that involve free play? What strategies should we follow to more effectively integrate free play into our programming?
-- Rebecca Meyer, Extension educator, educational design & development
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