Free Play as a Form of Inclusive Physical Activity

We hear more and more often that kids aren’t getting enough exercise.

Lack of physical activity is an even greater issue for children with limitations. In its most recent physical activity report card, ParticipACTION, an organization dedicated to encouraging Canadians to get healthy by getting active, reveals that only 35% of kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are getting their recommended hour of daily physical activity. And yet physical activity is recognized as a crucial element in children’s cognitive development and their mental and emotional health.

Fortunately, there’s a solution to getting kids to be more active that can be adapted to their needs, limitations, and imaginations: outside free play! Research clearly shows that when children are outside, they’re more active, spending less time sitting down and more time playing. What’s more, every child has the right to play. The notion of inclusion, intrinsic to the UN convention containing this right, is echoed in one of the core principles of forest school (and play in general)—namely, the importance of accepting people as they are.

But make no mistake: outside free play doesn’t mean that anything goes, nor does it have the structure of activities such as scrimmage. Free play simply means letting children decide what they want to do. That freedom hinges on four key elem ents; as such, making active play more inclusive requires re-examining those criteria while considering children of all abilities. 

Below is a list of the four criteria for free play as described by expert Francine Ferland, along with how each element is envisioned at The Lion and The Mouse and a few questions to guide you in the process of making free play more accessible.

Time 

Play is a process. Children should be given the time they need to explore that process without feeling pressured.

*Are there moments during the day when the kids can focus on something other than external learning or rehabilitation objectives, when play is truly viewed as a process rather than an educational tool?
*Do the kids need more time to set up, flesh out, and finish their game?|
*Do the kids need to know exactly how much time they have so that they can make the most of their playtime?

Space

Typical play spaces include a wide variety of options for most, but not all, children. Since they offer a less structured and more flexible range of activities, free play spaces are more easily adapted to the needs and interests of all kids, whether or not they have limitations. Natural spaces are by far our top choice!

*Can the kids access the different play spaces on their own?
*Are the play zones and the paths connecting them accessible and visible, and do they offer both a range of options suited to how children move at different stages of development and the equipment they need?
*
Are the kids limited to certain play zones depending on their age, even if other zones are better suited to their needs?
*Does access to the play zone depend on the weather?

Materials

It’s impossible for organized activities to be fun and accessible for all children. Every child is unique! That’s why loose parts and multipurpose objects make great play materials—they can be adapted to any child’s needs and interests.

*Do the kids have access to a variety of play materials that build their sense of empowerment?
*Is the play space rich in biodiversity and materials that stimulate the senses? Are the available materials accessible to any child?
*Is it also possible for kids to step away if they need to be in a calmer environment?

Partners

Our role is to provide guidance as children explore the play process.

*Do the kids have a safe space to play where they feel comfortable taking healthy risks?
*Do the kids need help interacting with the other children and making sense of the play environment they’ve created?
*Do the adults directly address problematic behaviour, such as discrimination?

Meeting the four criteria for free play is a responsibility that rests on our shoulders. It’s up to us to fulfill that responsibility in an inclusive way so that every child can enjoy free play!

References: 

“Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play”
The 2018 ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth
Et si on jouait? Le jeu au coeur du développement de l’enfant [Let’s make a game of it: The role of play in child development]
“The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child in Child Friendly Language” (This document is not the official version of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The official text can be found here: unicef.org/crc.)

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