We’ve all had that experience with our kids where they get a present and all they want to play with is the box or the wrapping paper. Their favorite toy is a kitchen utensil they found on their own and now carry endlessly around the house. We laugh about it and move on. If we look a bit closer, however, there is an important lesson in a moment like that we often miss and can learn from should we slow down and think about it.
Here’s the thing...kids don’t have preconceived notions about how they should play until we tell them by the toys we buy or activities we make a habit of doing. In essence, play habits are learned...that is of course...unless we get out of the way and let the child decide what “playing” looks like (which is much easier said than done). When we hand a child a toy that tells them exactly how they should play or create, we are teaching them that they are not expected to think for themselves. What if instead of giving them toys that say “this is how you SHOULD play”, we encourage them instead to spend lots of time outdoors which will organically lead them to discover all kinds of open doors to creativity? They can then use those ideas in play just by watching the world around them and storing their OWN ideas of how they “COULD” play. What if instead the message we send them is that their mind is truly amazing (and is made to use and challenge), their ideas are worth exploring, and their creativity, just as we see it in nature, is endless?
Put simply, the more intentional time your child spends outside in nature, the more they will be drawn to and thrive in open-ended play settings. Why is that?
In nature, where things are always changing, we have to really pay attention and sit with something in order to discover it’s beauty and meaning. In nature, we have to study and think before we can understand or engage. We are invited to imagine, to enjoy, to wonder (as I have with my daughter) at a line of ants, which at first glance seem small and plain. Then we crouch down and see that they have made a track in the dirt and are carrying pieces of food larger than their bodies. We have to stay still and really look. We sit and eat our lunch and just watch the ants work hard to store up many lunches for their entire colony through teamwork and perseverance. And then...just by watching... a whole new world of awe and wonder appears and begins to emerge in play.
Slowly, as this wonder, imagination, and creativity are cultivated in the mind and heart of a child as they discover the endless creativity of seemingly simple things in nature, it becomes natural for them to engage in open-ended play because there are thousands of seeds of imaginative ideas from spending time outdoors just waiting bloom in their playtime. For my daughter who has sat with the ants, a stick is no longer a stick, but a way to make a path in the dirt along the trail just like the ants. The making of that trail to someone passing by may seem like a child playing in the dirt, but for her she was making a profound connection with nature, one where she was inspired by the hard work and perseverance she saw in the ants and was inspired to build on that in her play as she made that trail.
Beginning in nature is a great place to start cultivating the habit of listening and watching closely, but it can also be practiced in a city or town. The important part is taking the time to really study something and linger there long enough to see past what is obvious and to take joy in the creativity, beauty, and possibility all around us.
Open-ended play is a learned habit in the same way that thoughtfully observing nature is a learned habit. It is not something you turn on and off because creatively observing, listening, enjoying, and imagining the possibility all around us as source of inspiration to create is not an activity at all...it is a way of life. If your child is having a hard time with the open-ended toys you have invested in, spend lots of intentional time outside in nature, and your child will develop a wealth of ideas to draw on when they are just sitting with something that at first glance seems small and plain. There is a whole new world awaiting them too.
Enjoy the Journey, Sarah
Games / Activities in nature to help develop the tools needed for open-ended play
I spy, I hear, I smell, I taste, I feel- An extension of the original "I spy" game, children are challenged not just to see things and describe them, but to do the same with the other senses and practice slowing down enough to discover subtle things around them. Subtle sounds are particularly fun to pick out. Taste and smell can be used while eating something. Texture is great for when they are holding an object or living thing.
"I notice/ I noticed"- a more general game to take turns sharing things they become aware of by listening and watching closely to the world around them. You can set the tone by the depth and nature of the examples you give. This can also be used at the end of a day to discuss things that happened or things that were memorable.
Things- This is a game where you take a random object and think of all the ways you can use that object as different things (this can be a family game that becomes really funny but that also helps children to look at something from different perspectives). This is often done as a stand alone game, but can be done while out in nature as an "on-the-go" activity.
Sit and Look- This may seem like an obvious thing to do, but take an object (a shell, a flower, a simple toy), and just sit and look at it with your child. Observe it and notice details about it. Maybe what it reminds you of, the way it changes as you turn it etc. You may be surprised at how hard this is for your child (and you) to do at first without getting bored. Start by doing this frequently and just making a comment or two together and build up to really studying something for longer lengths.
Stories- Take an object (any object) and use it as the main element in a story you make up. This can be done anywhere using anything even if you can't hold it. This is a great activity to do when you have to wait or sit still for awhile. Examples: Use the clock on the wall in the doctor's office to come up with a silly story together. Use some acorns to stage a story in the dirt and move them around as you tell the story.
Have more ideas or activities you do with your children in nature? Share them in the comments!