“Patrick,” a little girl says in her cute British accent, “stay here while I go find Charlotte. We must make a proper home. Come, gather some flowers for decoration.” The little boy smiles and starts picking flowers from a nearby bush, while the girl hums and straightens the homemade curtains.
She gives one last glance of approval at their newly fashioned site and then gallops away on her stick horse to find their playmate.
I’ve been observing from a distance for what seems like only a few minutes as this beautiful scenario unfolds in the woods. I look at my watch. It’s been almost an hour! How quickly time goes when children are fully engaged in play.
These same children struggled on day one of the TimberNook program — a nature-based development program for young kids designed to foster independent play outdoors and creativity. It started in the United States and is now making its way to the United Kingdom, and on the first day of the launch, the children were constantly seeking adult reassurance and direction.
Here in London, the concept of time and space in an outdoor program is new. Many children are used to busy and scheduled lives. Yet, we saw growth in play skills in just a day’s time. With practice, it did not take long for the children to come up with their own play ideas, overcome fears, and find novel inspiration from the environment.
I kept thinking, “What a precious gift we are giving to these children: The gift of time.” How often do we cut playtime short to interject our own ideas, thoughts, and agendas on them?
We have good intentions, yet we have it all backward. We think we are doing children service by constantly changing activities to keep children engaged and essentially entertained. They are shuffled from one event to the next both at home and at school, leaving little time for imagination, creativity, and more advanced social opportunities.
With little time to themselves, we are often shifting gears every 30 to 60 minutes; however, sometimes we are transitioning kids even more frequently!
These sample kindergarten schedules are a testimony to this:
As you can see, there are up to 13 or 14 transitions in an average school day for 5-year-olds! The home environment is not much better. We hurry them through meals, homework, and getting changed to get out the door quickly and to our destination.
Why are frequent transitions a problem?
As I’ve written extensively about before, sensory issues are on the rise in a big way. Children with particular sensory issues, such as having little tolerance for change or trouble regulating their bodies have a very difficult time with transitions. Sensory issues are also often linked to anxiety. Constantly “changing things up” can create unnecessary stress. Or worse, create complete chaos in the classroom and/or home environment.
I’ve heard of countless tactics to assist children with transitions such as singing songs in between activities or giving a warning that a transition is coming. Although some of these ideas are clever, most do little to ease the frustration of children … whom simply want more time.
Instead of creating special coping mechanisms to deal with so many (often pointless) transitions, what if we simply reduced them?
By constantly shifting gears, children become unregulated, agitated, and disorganized. Anxiety and activity levels increase. Kids cry at the drop off a hat; voices get louder. This is NOT the ideal state for learning or living for that matter.
If we want to truly foster healthy development, we must SLOW things down for our children. They weren’t designed to deal with constant interruptions to their day, neither are adults.
It is critical that we extend the number of times children engage in both learning and play experiences. Instead of the standard 20-minute recess sessions common in America these days, let’s give them at least an hour; better yet, let’s give them two hours each day! The benefits of play are incredibly vast. We are just now unlocking the boundless potential of unrestricted outdoor play. Why limit this?
Also, instead of 30-minute academically focused “centers,” let’s provide extended periods of time in inquiry and child-driven learning opportunities that engage the mind, body, and senses.
Let them learn about river ecology by actually visiting a river, dissecting fish, and having discussions about this. Let them learn about trees by climbing them, measuring them, planting them, and taking care of them. Let them have real encounters with the real world. It is only then that we will uncap the potential in our children.
Saying “we don’t have enough time” is no longer a reasonable excuse. Time is only a perception. We DO have the time to provide rich play and learning experiences. We just need to take a look at our priorities. We need to dive a bit deeper. Activities don’t cut it. Experiences are what our children desperately need and want.
Let us give our children the gift of time and watch them transform into stronger, healthier, and more capable children.
They will undoubtedly surprise you every time.