Updated: Jan 12
Hello, and welcome to the first in my second series of Advocates of Play. A series of blog interviews with play promoters around the world...
Introducing Jennifer Davis, founder of Stonebury Learning and author of 100 Things to do in a Forest...
Can you tell us about how you came to be an advocate for play? In what capacity does play feature in your life?
My realisation that my childhood had not been particularly free nor play-filled made me stop to consider the effects that it had on my decision-making as a young adult. I realised, after my first son was born, that I didn’t want my kids to grow up feeling the sense of restriction that I had felt. I wanted their childhood to be free of the expectations for behaviour, accomplishment and productivity that characterised my childhood.
My children do participate in a lot of structured activities - don’t get me wrong - but because they’re not at school they’re free to spend most of their days doing what they like and a large part of that is playing. When my sons were small I realised that I wanted to create a space for them to play freely, so I quit teaching and trained as a forest school leader.
Over the past six years delivering forest school sessions I have seen what an enormous positive impact can be made in children’s lives through hours of unstructured time spent away from toys or devices of any sort. In my woodland there are tools to accomplish a task if the children feel the need to do something, but there is no structure, no expectations and no rewards for achievement. The result of this is hours of intense play which gives children all of the skills that they will ever need to enjoy their lives - negotiation, compromise, creativity, disappointment, challenge, risk assessing, supporting & protecting others - the list is endless.
How would you describe your play philosophy?
I believe that play is an expression of freedom and an opportunity to explore our place in the world. Children learn everything they need to learn by interacting with the natural world, their peers and adults in long and uninterrupted spans of free time. Play does not require toys or prompts. Play does not need facilitating. Adult supervision of play is almost always detrimental to the freedom of expression that children must be permitted in order to make sense of the world around them.
Oftentimes play looks a lot like adult-world work; tea parties, building tree houses, serving mud pies or tending to ‘injured’ friends are simply pint-sized versions of the often mundane tasks that children observe in their daily lives. By being given the space in which to work through these activities children are able to process grief, understand trauma and come to terms with their own fears.
Play doesn’t always look like fun - there are arguments, negotiations, tears and injuries. The abrupt endings of games, the breakdowns in communication and the politics of peer groups are all necessary parts of the process and should not be mitigated by adults who are trying to ‘protect’ children from being hurt.
Who or what has influenced your perspective on play? Are there any books, blogs, Instagram accounts that you would recommend?
The children that I work with have influenced my perspectives more than any book or blog. By observing their interactions, asking them about the decisions they’ve made and trying to see how their choices from one event to the next have created change, I have been able to learn a lot about what really matters in the developing play world of children. I could literally spend hours (and sometimes I do) observing children playing - my colleague and I dissect and discuss very minute details of the children’s interactions and I am constantly fascinated by the richness of their play.
All that being said, Teacher Tom is my absolute idol. I believe he has all of the answers to my conundrums and I am always heartened when I read his blog and discover that he takes the same views of events that I do. Otherwise, I try to stay away from all of the social media stuff - I think it’s pretty detrimental to the creative process to spend too long thinking about how other people think I should be doing things. I know that the setting we’ve created is positive and joyful and beneficial for the children in hundreds of ways and I think I need the courage of my convictions - which I simply cannot have when I read too many opinions about the ‘right’ ways of doing things.
How do you facilitate child led, open ended play within your home or setting?
Our forest school is based entirely on free play with free access to resources whenever the children require them. Obviously they have to adhere to some rules about safe tool use and that type of thing but otherwise we have no expectations that any particular thing will be achieved and we don’t insist on participation in anything (other than the end of day meetings which is a real whirlwind of opinions and ideas!)
Children use tools to achieve their goals, they repurpose things they find to contribute to their play and they make use of the natural environment. Other than that, there are no toys, no props and no encouragement to act in any particular way. We don’t have themes or objectives - we don’t try to shroud ‘learning’ in anything.
We 100% believe in the value of true, unstructured play as a ‘learning’ opportunity in itself and we don’t try to nudge anyone toward anything. The result of this freedom is variable depending on the hour of the day, the weather and how much we’ve all had to eat. I joke that I’ve never seen more conflict anywhere in my life than I do at forest school, but I am constantly amazed at the maturity, intelligence and compassion that the children show when trying to resolve their conflicts. And furthermore, those children who’ve been attending my setting for several years show a maturity and insight when dealing with others that I simply do not see in their same age schooled peers.
Can you share a top tip for encouraging children to play independently?
Playing independently is an odd concept - to be truly independent should not really be the end goal of play because by its very nature play is about learning to understand and interact with others. Whether a child is playing alone with their Star Wars figures or playing in a group of children, there is a dynamic of interaction in all of that.
I think what a lot of parents are referring to when they talk about independent play is how they can get out of having to pretend for the umpteenth time that they’re delighted with the pretend cup of tea with which they’ve just been presented. I didn’t engage in this type of play with my children - it didn’t feel genuine to me - so my children never really expected me to be a part of those games. I haven’t really ever seen my role as playmate - that’s why my children are almost always surrounded by other kids - because they’re all on the same level in terms of their play needs.
At forest school we can always tell the kids who engage with their parents on this level - they find it really hard to compromise with other children and are often left feeling lonely and left out because they don’t know how to go along with someone else’s ideas. It’s no surprise if you imagine how consistently bossy young toddlers can be when playing make-believe with their parents - and how readily mums and dads go along with all of the demands of their kids. They’re not learning any of the important soft-skills of negotiation, turn-taking, fairness or compromise when they’re telling their parent ‘you be the monkey and I’ll be the doctor who’s going to fix you. NO! You’re not supposed to have a hurt arm - it’s your leg that’s sore.’ Or some variation.
What type of play are the children in your home or setting really engaged in right now?
There’s been a fairly major civil engineering project going on for the past couple of months. This started with the damming of the stream and has resulted in a new water-course, a pond at the bottom of the woods and the creation of a new den. The list of ‘jobs’ that need doing seems endless and children as young as two and as old as 13 are all working together at various projects to do with this diverted stream. If you asked them, they would give you a detailed explanation of everything that needs doing and how it is going to be achieved but I don’t think any of them would call it play. It’s serious work for them.
I do believe in Montessori’s view of childhood as preparation for the adult world and I value the space that children need to take part in real ‘work’ in order to feel a sense of self and develop an awareness of others. Obviously as an adult my life is a lot easier if everyone is getting along - but in reality it is the times where disagreement is loud and tensions are high where the most productive stuff is going on. When everyone is agreeing, it’s usually because a more dominant personality has started doling out jobs and the younger ones are just getting on with doing what they’ve been told. This makes me sad to see even though it’s pretty low-conflict. I love to see the kids really passionately standing up for their rights to do whatever they feel needs doing and I see that conflict as an integral part of their development.
If you had to pick just three toys or play resources to encourage child led, open ended play, what would you choose?
A piece of rope, a spade and a hammer.
If you could make one wish for your child, or for the children of today, what would it be?
I wish that every child, no matter their parents’ economic position, could be given many hours and years of unstructured play outside in the woods, free from the ‘protection’ of meddling adults, in order to foster resilience, emotional intelligence and a deep and abiding love of the natural world.
If you would like to contribute to my Advocates of Play Series, please send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org
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