The Difference between Unstructured Outdoor Play and Outdoor Play Structures

What is Play?

The word play brings to mind exploring something with an open mind, discovering its properties, understanding what it can or cannot do and forming new ideas. For the child under six, play is a bridge that links them to the world. This play is the work of the child and through it, they form many new ideas about the world while also understanding themselves and their endless capabilities.

Outdoor play is an important aspect of play that introduces to the young child the wonders of the natural world. 

“Play is motivated by means more than ends. Play is constantly evolving and developing into new forms of play and play schemes. Play is also not passive but requires constant assessment and engaged minds.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

Unstructured Outdoor Play

The word unstructured by itself removes limitations on the child’s exploration of the outdoors. The outdoor environment has so much sensory stimuli that unstructured play allows the child to choose which stimulus they would like to be drawn to.

  • Bonding with Nature

In today’s world which is crowded by tall buildings, endless traffic and busy schedules, outdoor play provides a respite to the young child. It slows down time just a little bit, allowing them to freely play in the natural surroundings. This kind of play in the outdoors without all the layers of human touch is vital for the child to form a lasting relationship with nature.

  • Dynamic Challenges

When we leave the child to freely explore the natural world, they can set their own challenges depending on the stage of development they are in. A baby might simply be on a patch of grass, crawling and watching a butterfly or grasping a flower while a toddler might choose run on the grass, feed birds and pick fallen leaves. Older children with more controlled movements are free to set more complex challenges such as climbing trees, hiking up a steep slope or running and playing with the dog.

This kind of structure-free play frees up the mind to set challenges for oneself and devise strategies to overcome them.

Structure-Free Outdoor Play
  • Sharpening Judgement

Imagine the young child in a natural environment and think of the endless possibilities for building judgement. As adults, we sometimes forget that the child is building judgement through play. Every interaction such as crawling to a leaf, trying to catch a dragonfly, getting pricked by a thorn, feeling the prickly grass, falling down while running or jumping high for the branch with the fruit calls for calculation. These are essential for the child to hone and a structure-free natural environment will do a lot to constantly challenge the young child’s judgement.

  • Vivid Imagination

Because of the range of sensory input the child receives by playing outdoors, the abstractions they form are diverse. These lay a strong foundation for the budding imagination. An older child will begin to show signs of this imagination when they use leaves as medicines in their imaginary play, twigs as huts, straw for water boats and so on. This imagination which is more manifest in the older child has its foundation in that small baby who plays with the outdoor environment and understands it.

Outdoor Play Structures

Outdoor play structures on the other hand are specially designed structures to challenge young children’s gross motor skills, their vestibular sense and overall mind-body coordination. Some commonly found structures are swings and slides, merry-go-round, jungle gyms and climbing domes.

  • Fixed Challenges

Each of the play structures are created for a specific challenge. For example, the slide is designed for the child to climb/crawl up the ladder using calculated movements and then slide down at full speed. While sliding down, the child’s vestibular sense is stimulated.  The same goes for most other commonly found play structures. They are designed for fixed challenges and do not hold the same openness as natural environments with dynamic challenges.

  • Not Exactly Outdoor Play

While swings and slides which are large equipments fit better in an outdoor environment, they are not necessarily outdoor play. There is no element of nature involved in this play apart from some fresh air which comes naturally by being outdoors.

  • No Room for Imagination

A swing or a slide or merry-go-round does not challenge the child’s inner need for exploration. Play is something that must show different dimensions with each exploration. Imagine adults calling a treadmill or an elliptical ‘play’. These are specific gym equipments designed for specific purposes. Likewise, the outdoor park structures are specific equipments designed to serve specific purposes and they do not do anything else to feed the child’s imagination.

Why is it Important to Understand the Difference?

These days, when we use the word outdoor play, it somehow immediately translates to play in park structures. As we have seen, outdoor play is so much more than playing on a swing or climbing a jungle gym. Although play structures help challenge the child’s gross motor skills, they do not necessarily feed other areas of development which a natural, unstructured play environment fosters. While it is necessary for us to take our children to the neighbourhood park to challenge their gross motor skills, it is also equally important to plan and take our children to natural settings with raw nature unfolding. The structured outdoor parks with plastic grass, wood chips and foam mats are not the same as the uneven outdoor trails,the hilly slopes with wild flowers and shrubs, the stones and gravel which make the play a lot more challenging.  

“Playing in nature adds an element of adventure. Nature is unpredictable and exploring nature is always an exciting experience. Since playground equipment only serves a few functions, it often leaves little to the imagination. Having access to movable natural items, such as branches, rocks, sticks, leaves and pinecones adds a new element to play. Natural playgrounds tend to inspire creative play in children because there are endless play opportunities.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

When we expand our understanding of outdoor play, we will begin to look beyond the park fences and understand that outdoor play is the beginning of a lifetime of friendship, love and oneness with the natural world.

Share a Meal with your Child

What is a Meal? 

A meal is a coming together of a group of people, sharing their day with each other, valuing each other’s presence, being grateful for the food that they are eating and leaving everything else to just be there for one another! A meal is so much more than eating; a meal implies a family! 

In the book Cooked : A Natural History of Transformation, Michael Pollan says, “The shared meal is no small thing. It is a foundation of family life, the place where our children learn the art of conversation and acquire the habits of civilisation: sharing, listening, taking turns, navigating differences and arguing without offending.

When a meal carries so much value, why is it that children, who are learning what it means to be a family, have little to no experience of eating as a family?

The Real Struggle behind Eating

With young children, eating is a continuous and isolated activity that is done at a different time from the rest of the family. It always begins with a parent taking a spoonful of food to the child’s mouth and ends with the child turning their face away. This is when desperation and impatience set in and to somehow navigate this trying time, we devise techniques and strategies to ‘trick’ our children into eating. 

The first is to try and distract them with a toy or two, or point to different things in the room and feed them without their conscious involvement. If this doesn’t work, we resort to the Ipad technique and while the child is completely engrossed in the visuals, we quickly sneak in one too many spoonfuls. If neither of these work, we resort to threats! Now, threats always come in varying degrees of intensity, from denying them access to their favourite toy to telling them that they will be left behind while the rest of the family goes to the park. The other technique is chasing them around the house while they distractedly run from one object to another with no recollection of having eaten. If none of these work, we resort to pleading, “Please have just one more spoonful for me” or “See, I am sad now that you are not eating.” After much coaxing, cajoling, tears and threats, our children finish one bowl of rice only for us to realise that the same techniques have to be tried again, in exactly a few hours!

While these techniques that we employ may temporarily do the trick and even seem harmless at the moment, they leave lasting impressions. If we want our children to value meal-time as family time, eat more consciously and develop a holistic relationship with food, we need to first have a place for them at the table and share our meals with them!

A family table with a one year old and two six-year olds.

Share a Meal with your Child – Why?

  • Being Valued 

Having a place at the table communicates to children that they are an integral part of the family and that their presence is valued. Families must make the effort to eat at least one meal a day together. Regardless of the age of the child, we can seek participation at the table. Even a six month old can nibble on a piece of fruit while being a part of the table. By having a place at the table, we communicate to the child that meal-time is family time.

  • An Opportunity to Imitate & Imbibe 

At the table, children get to watch how different members of their family (& friends) eat, how they pass around food, and take turns serving. Eating by themselves at the table also gives them the opportunity to watch other members and practice repeatedly. It is important to remember that children learn purely by observation and repetition! So, the more effort we take to eat together, the more opportunities for them to observe and learn.

  • Seeing Food as a Whole 

Children often eat without ever knowing what they are eating. In chasing and running from one room to the other and watching the Ipad whilst completely unaware of what is going into their mouth, children never get to actually see food on a plate. At the table, they get to see rice and beans, roti and dal, the various eating utensils and cutlery all come together as a whole. Meal-time is also when we can give them tiny tastes of the different dishes and let them experience the variety of our culture.

  • Learning the Art of Conversation 

It is important for children to be part of the conversations that happen at the table. While eating, we can show them how to acknowledge the effort and love that has gone into cooking. As children grow older, they will also begin to participate and contribute, thus becoming grateful for the food and each others contribution. At the table is also where we can draw attention to the different dishes and the ingredients that have gone into it. Involve them and acknowledge their response whether it is a coo, a babble, a nod or a phrase. This elevates the experience of eating and makes it joyful and something to look forward to. 

We must help children create a healthy association with food and cultivate a love for it. When eating comes with conversations, a place at the table, an opportunity to taste different dishes, it becomes much more than a dreaded affair that ends in tears. By sharing a meal with our children, we not only show them what it means to be a family, but also give them the freedom to take food to their mouth! We respect and value their presence and gradually, they begin to associate food with family time, conversations and an opportunity to feed themselves.

Finding Time for Free Movement in a Busy World

Estimated Time to Read: 4 minutes


The Joy of Free Movement

Many of us have experienced the rush of energy that comes from using our bodies freely. The human body loves movement and every time we give ourselves the opportunity to move, it releases many hormones like endorphins and oxytocin which regulate our mental and physical wellbeing. Even a short stroll works wonders in calming and making us happier when nothing else is going well in a day. When this logic applies to adults, the same goes for children who need time to move freely. However, in this busy world, it is becoming increasingly harder for us to balance the time our children spend in some kind of device or container with unhindered, free movement. 

What are Containers?

To understand the problem with containers, let us first look at what they mean. A container is any device that contains or restricts a baby’s ability to move freely. They either place a hold on their full body movement or deny access to their hands. The most commonly used containers are car seats, strollers, bouncy swings, vibrating chairs, bumbo seats, exersaucers and mittens.

So, what’s the problem with containers?

Containers are fantastic for adults who just want to take a break. They keep the baby safe and entertained while we finish up our cooking, catch up on the news or simply chill with a book. But, the problem with these containers arises when we find it consistently easier to manage our babies when they are in it rather than when they are outside it. 

  • Distorted Body Image

When we repeatedly buckle our babies in some container, we begin to give them a very distorted image of their body. Ideally, when a baby moves freely, they understand the effects of their body in space. However, when they move only within the constraints of a container, the brain begins to include this container as a part of their body image and the understanding of just their body in space gets distorted.  

  • Reduced Synaptic Connections

The first year of life is crucial in making several synaptic connections in the brain and this happens when the baby is in contact with the environment. When they accidentally kick a toy or a bat an object, they realise the impact their tiny body has on the environment, leading to repetition and several synaptic connections. The less opportunities for free movement, the less interactions they have with their surroundings and lesser synaptic connections they form.

  • Cognitive Limitations

The human brain is a phenomenal tool with immense potential. The mind and body communicate with each other and the more we do to free the body, the more the child can do to feed their minds. A baby doesn’t know an apple from an orange by being strapped to a container and looking at them in picture books but by being on the floor, figuring out the distance to the fruit and crawling towards it, holding it in both their hands and finally discovering it’s many properties. A child’s knowledge of the world is built from interactions in it and the world is just not the same when they are being moved around from one container to another, without the freedom to explore. 

  • Gross & Fine Motor Lag 

More and more children are having difficulty being on their tummy, sitting up, crawling and walking. They are having problems using their hands to accomplish even the simplest tasks. The human hand and body are great tools that have the potential to do many things. A child can use their hands to paint, sculpt, cook or sew. They can use their bodies in a variety of ways to swim, dance, jump and run. For a child to reach such dexterity and coordination is not an impossible feat but a journey of firstly discovering their body and its abilities. If we free them from these containers, they are one step closer to reaching these possibilities.

How do we find a Balance?

  • Compensate Being Strapped with Free Movement

For every half hour that our babies need to spend in containers, we must try to compensate with an hour of absolutely free movement. Some containers for children are unavoidable and rather, essential, like a car seat. However, it will be helpful to let the baby free, the moment we reach our destination. If we need to drive longer, then we can plan such that our babies can have some free movement.

A family in the middle of nowhere, stopping to give their baby some free movement!
  • Free Movement Area

It is also helpful to have a movement area for the baby that can be both indoors and outdoors. This is where the baby can practice being on their tummy, kicking, batting, crawling, sitting and discovering their hands. Place simple objects such as a rattle, a ball or a fruit that will capture their attention and urge them to move towards it. Keep their hands and feet exposed as much as possible so that they can observe them, take them to their mouths and understand their possibilities.

  • Opportunity to Observe Others

It will also help to give young children the opportunity to watch people using their hands and legs. This can be anything from watching us chop vegetables for dinner, use a broom to sweep the floor, dance, exercise, knit, paint or wash dishes at the sink.

When we give our children enough experience to move freely and watch others move, they will begin to imitate and gradually gain control over their body. They will have the skill-set and confidence to step out of their small space and move in harmony with the rest of life. 

The Toys in our Children’s Lives

The child under six is an explorer who understands the world using their senses. So, what we offer them for exploration must represent this world, spark their curiosity and stimulate their growing intellect. Instead, as a society, we have taken our children far away from the richness of the natural world and placed them in a plastic one filled with toys that offer little or no stimulation to their hungry senses.

How we have viewed Toys? 

  • An Entertainment

Most toys that we buy off shelves are merely used as fillers to entertain the child. They are designed to occupy their attention for a short span of time and often fail to do even this because of their superficial nature and we see them move from one object to another, visibly hungry for more. These toys make sounds and noises when buttons are pressed, making them artificial and over stimulating. This kind of distorted representation only takes them further away from understanding their world.

Messy Toys

  • Plastic is Easy

The other problem with most toys is that they are made out of a single material – PLASTIC. The reason being, plastic is most durable, affordable and endures the child’s handling. But in guaranteeing their safety, plastic toys rob children of many sensorial experiences. Imagine this curious explorer take plastic after plastic to their mouth only to receive the same information from each of them. It is ironic that the plastic which is so colourfully decorated on the outside fails to offer them anything more than that.

“Children need nature for the healthy development of their senses and therefore, for learning and creativity too.”

Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods

  • More is Better

Because the child’s attention is easily waned with these toys, we feel the need to buy more to occupy their time and slowly, they begin to take up a huge portion of our homes. They are then dumped in big buckets, making it impossible for the child to take a toy of their choice without pouring everything else on the floor. We gradually convince ourselves that young children have lesser attention spans and feed this fallacy with more and more toys. 

How  we  CAN  view  Toys?
The toys that we surround the child with must invite them to use each of their senses, raising many questions in their heads that lead to further exploration and discovery.

  • Experience

Instead of viewing toys as entertainers, let us look at them as experience-givers or teachers. Before choosing a toy, close your eyes and hold the toy between your hands. Feel the texture, take the toy to your nose and take in the unique scent, shake the toy to see if it makes any noise and then open your eyes to see how it looks visually. This experiment will give an idea of how many different experiences a simple object can offer. Look for toys made out of different natural materials such as bamboo, brass, silver, steel, wood, copper and natural fabric such as cotton, silk or wool. These can be part of your immediate environment or something that the child sees others using. 

Bamboo shakers, metal rattles, a leaf or flower, a small cup, spoon or tumbler, a bangle, honey dipper, balls made from different kinds of natural fabric, dry gourds with seeds, wooden clackers, a small brush with soft bristles, bells, variety of vegetables and fruits. 

  • Abstraction & Imagination

Every concrete experience that the child has in the world feeds their intellect and helps them create abstractions. An abstraction helps the child hold the world in their little heads. It is this abstraction that helps them blossom as adults with vivid imaginations. If plastic is the only material we offer them, then that will form the basis of their imagination. Instead, if we open up the world and show them different ways to explore it, they will create many abstractions each day which will also aid in the appreciation of the natural world. 

When truly present in nature, we do use all our senses at the same time, which is the optimum state of learning.” 

Richard Louv, The Nature Principle

  • Less is More

In a world of abundance, we are constantly led to believe that more is better. When a child is bored with a toy, it is not time to buy another one but to show another way to explore the same toy. When we buy and hoard buckets and buckets of toys, they lose value and children run from one to the other, finding it hard to settle down with any. It is important to have variety but limit the number that we offer them at any given time. 

The world is filled with abundant riches; we only need to pause for a moment and look. Let us pack the plastic away and instead offer our children toys that are a piece of their environment. Let the child take it, explore it, own it and become a part of it!