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Learning from Caine's Arcade: Programming free play

Rebecca-Meyer.jpgLast 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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  1. What a lovely, sweet clip Becky!! It brought tears to my eyes. You are right. Undirected, free-form play is the best thing for all human beings. Thank you for a such a nice piece. Cece

  2. Free play is the key to guiding and understanding a child's development. Children need long periods of uninterrupted play whether inside or outside. Our outdoor play space is a classroom in itself. We intentionally plan each area of the space to include: art, music, construction, climbing, gardening, tricycle/scooter riding, dramatic play, sand and water play. The staff thoughtfully plan each area to challenge the oldest and youngest learners in the space.
    We are so fortunate to be located in Lincoln Park. The park has 1.5 miles of hiking trails and endless opportunities for discovery, exploration, creative and critical thinking. There are various locations in the park that the children have named- Witch's Castle, Elephant Rock, Echo Bridge and the Green Park. When the children get to choose whether to play on the playground equipment or go to Echo Bridge, they choose Echo Bridge 99 percent of the time.
    We believe if we teach a child how to learn, by providing a quality environment, uninterrupted time and appropriate guidance will stay with a child a lifetime.

  3. Thank you for your comments Cece. This example is very moving in sooo many ways. It is my hope that we collectively make this kind of difference in the lives of young people. Do you have an example from your own practice that highlights free play? Or, strategies for how we build this concept of free play into youth programs?

  4. Nancy, thank you for joining the conversation. I especially appreciate both the elements of intentionality and thoughtfulness that you describe in the design of the learning space for the children. Both of these are critical when we consider how to incorporate free play into structured programs. Do you have strategies for assisting staff in their development (and comfort) around "appropriate guidance?" As a practitioner, it is intuitive to "plan" for every moment of a program and this is where I sense tension for the concept free play.

  5. HI Becky -
    Thanks for your blog on free play. It is so interesting to see how free play can help children (and the adults around them) understand their learning and development.
    You mentioned "thought spaces" in your blog. Could you say a little more about this concept?

  6. Rebecca,
    A great example of outdoor "programmed" free play is the Swedish program Ur och Skur (Rain or Shine). Much of the program involves creating space, access, and oversight for children's free play in nature. The goal of Ur och Skur is based on allowing nature experience to be a daily part of a child's life; Ur och Skur supports curiosity and wonder of nature via play, exploration, and regular experience. Most of the program descriptions are in Swedish, however, the following text in English does provide an overview. Google: UR OCH SKUR “RAIN OR SHINE” SWEDISH FOREST SCHOOLS and you will be directed to a PDF.
    Nancy--I am so glad to hear of the kids in Lincoln Park...I used to live adjacent to that beautiful space. I am happy to hear of kids at Elephant Rock and the other engaging spaces!

  7. Hello Jennifer,
    Thanks for participating in the discussion. Regarding "thought spaces," I think of this space as being a part of the learning environment. It is the space that allows for thinking - where development of life skills is in process such as, critical thinking, problem-solving, decision making, and learning to learn. In this particular example, from my perspective, the environment facilitated the development of these life skills in Caine as he used a generative learning process.

  8. Hi Tom,
    Thank you for commenting and sharing the program example from Sweden. I appreciate the report your referenced that shares the history, expansion, features, and benefits for the I UR OCH SKUR "RAIN OR SHINE" Swedish Forest Schools. In your travels abroad, did you visit any of the Swedish Forest Schools? Also what specific strategies, or supports, from the Swedish Forest Schools would you recommend we incorporate into out-of-school time program opportunities?

  9. The nature center that I just started at, River Bend, has a designated 'nature play-ground' which is a step in the right direction I think, but can you talk a little bit about how a nature playground and free play are different? Or are they the same? In the very short time I've been at River Bend I have seen groups of students pass the play area and are interested in it but we are always on our way to a different destination and I am looking for suggestions (as it seems you are) as to how I can incorporate that time and space into our formal programs. Thanks!

  10. Hi Sarah,
    Thanks for joining the discussion. I view nature playgrounds as a physical space where children play that is designed in specific ways to incorporate elements of nature: soils, water, plants. Free play is likely included in these types of natural playgrounds. However, free play can be incorporated into a variety of learning environments. It is not necessarily something that only happens in nature spaces. Free play (or what some refer to as unstructured play) is activity that is generated by youth with little or no guidance from adults. In this example, Caine is directing his own play and learning through the development of his arcade.
    The challenge for practitioners is to identify where and how we create these types of free play opportunities within our structured programs. I offer some strategies for creating these free play spaces within our youth programs. I hope other examples, like the natural playgrounds, continue to be shared so we can draw additional strategies to help support this concept of free play through structured youth programs.
    What are other examples of free play?

  11. Thanks for joining the discussion. I view nature playgrounds as a physical space where children play that is designed in specific ways to incorporate elements of nature: soils, water, plants. Free play is likely included in these types of natural playgrounds.


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