As a kid growing up in the middle of the woods, I could occupy myself for hours under those trees making up games with my friends or sitting in the creek looking at salamanders. When my friends weren’t around, I pretended that I was living in Papua New Guinea and put found crow feathers and rings of leaves on my head, just like I’d seen in National Geographic. I got lost in the Amazon and climbed Everest. I studied the resident gorillas and recorded the behaviors of our local chimpanzees, even though our dogs looked nothing like either.
Back then, I had no idea that what I was doing amounted to much more than simply pretending. I wasn’t just having fun; believe it or not, I was learning to be a productive, sociable, well-adjusted adult. In fact, according to a growing body of research, children who do not regularly participate in self-guided, imaginative free-play (particularly free play with other children) may actually have reduced problem solving skills and even social cognition as adults, meaning they may eventually have problems relating to other people. Plus, play is natural! Many animals play to some extent, and this play gives many of them, like large cats, the skills they need to hunt prey. Although we humans don’t have to rely on hunting to sustain us, we do have to rely on social interactions.
Sarah Baumann is a student in the Zoo’s Advanced Inquiry Program (AIP), a Master’s Degree program we offer area educators through Project Dragonfly at Miami University. As both an AIP graduate student and as an elementary school teacher at Longbranch Elementary School in Union Kentucky, Sarah has spent much time examining the importance of free, imaginative play in children, and how it not only enhances their learning as students, but how it contributes to a genuine connection to the natural world.
Sarah explains, “Giving children the opportunity to use their imagination allows them to explore the world around them. They can create a personal connection to the plants, animals, and other things around them. In today’s competitive world, we are asking children to grow up much faster than past generations… children benefit from unstructured playtime free of adult rules and restrictions…”
This personal connection is important. Children need the opportunity to experience nature first-hand, in their own way, at their own pace. As adults, these personal experiences lead to compassion and emotional connections to nature, which ultimately leads to more environmentally friendly behaviors – which is a good thing. In short, play isn’t just for fun.
If you’re interested in studying topics like play, or have a desire to learn more about inquiry-based and participatory education, check out the Advanced Inquiry Program. The deadline to apply is February 28. You’ll get to hang out with me, and I can promise you that there will be recess.