Last semester I did field work at the Milwaukee Public Sign Language School for a K-4 classroom. Working there with the children was the complete opposite of what I have experienced while working at LifeWays. I would go to that school in the morning and stay for the day. After that I would go straight to LifeWays.
When transitioning from the K4 classroom to LifeWays, I had to do a complete 180 on how I worked with the children in each program. The atmosphere and ideals of both schools are so different. One of the differences between the schools that I noticed was free-play. Everyday, the children in the K4 classroom would usually get one-hour a day of free-play, most of the time it was inside. Once in a great while we got the opportunity to go play outside. At the Milwaukee Public School there was a huge blacktop with a small fenced-in playground. I would watch the children play on this playground and then I would go to LifeWays and watch the children play in the front yard, climb a tree, or play by the clearing, etc. While observing the two groups of children in these different outdoor play areas I noticed a huge difference in their play.
Children on the playground played games like tag, hide-and-seek, and follow the leader. They took turns sliding down the slides and crossing the monkey bars. But for the most part I observed children running all around the fenced in play yard trying to get one another, running in groups, or running by themselves. Hardly ever did I see the children engaged in imaginative play, such as house or pirates.
While at LifeWays I noticed that the play was significantly different. Whether we were in the play yard with sand toys, in the front yard, or playing by a fallen down tree, the children’s play was imaginative. Once when I was in the woods with Jasper, he asked if he could take our group to his “Jasper house.” He led us down the path into the woods and he had taken us to a tree that did not grow up but grew in an umbrella shape that made it house-like. Jasper and Otto climbed on top and started making “dog food.” James and Luka joined in the play first by being the customers and then they became cooks as well. Jasper, Otto, James, and Luka all had a different type of food they were making for the dogs. They had created a whole system; one of them was even in charge of the “money.”
Imaginative play is always present at LifeWays. I hardly ever see the children at LifeWays playing tag or hide-and-seek, and rarely does a child look bored or not know what to do. Natalie and Orion’s favorite game to play is family. Almost everyday day during afternoon snack I hear Natalie say, “Orion, after snack do you wanna play family?” Sometimes their family is on a bench (which they pretend is a ship) with Otto Knox being a family of pirates; sometimes they are a family of lions with Eli crawling around a tree. But no matter what their family is, it is different everyday, and different children are involved in the game. It is always fun to watch and see what their play will develop into. The presence of imagination is only one of the many benefits of having a natural play space.
The children do not need elaborate equipment such as swings, monkey bars, or slides. All they need is nature, and a little imagination.