Imagination and Outside Play

A childminder’s perspective

We have always had a big emphasis on imaginative play in our setting. I love to see the children’s imagination running free. Imagination is such a vital part of faith.

God asks us to use our imagination. He told Abraham to go outside at night and count the stars – that’s how many grandchildren and great grandchildren he would have in his family tree. God was provoking Abraham ‘s imagination; He said, “I want you to visualise what I’m going to do in your life.”

Through imaginative play the children show that their understanding is developing. We provide lots of different resources to support their play including boxes, mats and tubes which are used to make such things as buses, trains and lorries. The children pretend objects are other things in their world. They become critical thinkers, always asking themselves , “What else is possible?” They make links, think of ideas and develop them.

We have noticed relative traits in how the genders act out their imaginative play. Girls seem to prefer to act out their experiences , such as mobile phone calls or shopping trips , whereas boys use stories as foundations for their play; for example, superheroes, fireman or common characters .

I wonder if this is influenced by media and commercial marketing. Another observation I have made is that girls have a tendency to verbally direct play: “Tori, you pour the tea, you call mummy, let’s go to the shops.” Boys use objects to bring others into the play; for example , they might bring me a car or offer me a stick for a sword to prompt me to join in their play.

I wonder if others have seen similar behaviour? How can we be more mindful of the influences of media and marketing? Should we pay particular attention when sharing Bible stories where the male and female roles are traditional or stereotypical?

I love to see a child’s imagination flourishing when outside and this is why at our setting we encourage an outdoor lifestyle. We try not to use a prescribed time scale. Being a home setting is advantage in this. We take our lead from the children. A vaguely planned moment feeding and cleaning the chickens easily extends into a whole morning in the garden, hunting slugs and snails for them. Or a visit to the weekly market has often been extended. The other week lemons where on special offer and so, even before we got home, we had stopped in the local park to make lemonade. This was when the weather was fine and fresh lemonade was just what everyone needed.

Outside there are fewer differences in gender play styles. The environment can change the shy independent child into a confident team player. The reluctant child with  low self-esteem can become a mountain climber, or an expert engineer building exciting waterways. Such opportunities give the children occasion for new experiences , learning from trial and error as well as testing their ideas. There is more room to move or find their own space for independent play, and outside play is free. This gives children the opportunity to express themselves freely, supporting their developing self-esteem .

Being outside can affect our emotions. Much research shows that many children become less disruptive outside. Nevertheless , there has to be consideration for children with sensory processing disorder for whom these experiences can be challenging.

There are challenges to outside play.

For example, the issue of risk. Although among practitioners there seems to be a general shift in understanding of risk, there is still the wider public perception and its impact on young children. I use photographs to show parents how children have tested their own abilities and limits. Children are given critical life skills, including self­ belief, as well as assessing risk and danger. It is important to remember we are not just raising toddlers or primary school children but functioning adults who can assess their own limits and abilities safely.

There is also the adult-taught fear of “getting messy”. We are all aware of the concern about looking good as adults (even teenagers), but can we really put this pressure on our youngest children? My motto is “children and clothes are all washable!” With a respect for cost I try and offer spare clothes for all children and always encourage from day one: “Play clothes please.” I like to share with parents my childhood memories and encourage them to think of their own memories – I never remember making clean, sterilised mud pies, but I do have vivid memories of making the smelliest, brown perfume from my Mum’s rose garden. We learn by doing and, in my experience, the more mess the better.

Recently we took the children into the woods. It was a very wet day and the thought of a busy indoor soft play centre really did not appeal. I couldn’t believe all the new skills we saw: children were negotiating their own space, using their whole bodies to get about. At a soft play centre there is a tendency to use hand and feet or even bottom-shuffle to get about, but being outdoors children have to stay upright and use all their core strength to get about. A soft play centre doesn’t change but we could walk along the same path more than once and find another obstacle, a low branch, and puddle and other walkers. There may also be social benefits of being outside. Inside is a race: ‘who can get to the top first?’ Outside we stop and talk to people. The children share their experiences: “We saw a squirrel. He went fast up the tree.” We help others to find the best stick or help people find their way to picnic areas.

Whilst walking through the woods and paddling in the stream the children are hunting Gruffalos, they are splashing though ‘Jungle Rivers,’ they became explorers, dinosaurs and little mice. Outside we talk and share, challenge oneanother and use our imagination.

The Bible tells us to focus on the things we can’t see – on the things that will last: We fix our gaze on things that cannot be seen. For the things we see now will soon be gone, but the things we cannot see will last forever (2 Corinthians 4:18, New Century Version.) . And how do we focus on these things? We use our imagination.

Victoria Eardley-Ford  

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