So often when we send our children through the playground and into the school gates, our ruminations on why they go there center on preparation for later life. English helps our children read the newspaper, and read between the lines of advertiser’s lies. Maths helps them calculate everything from their weekly budgets to the angles needed to properly support a new house’s roof. Science gives the understanding about the rules of the universe, and how to critically examine the truth of any physical claim, and History gives them the context for the culture and country they find themselves in.
Preparation for later life is important, and indeed as parents, we work on preparing our children for each and every stage of life they’ll face in our care. But preparation is not limited to the classroom. The playground too offers a wide variety of challenges, opportunities, and lessons. All of which let our children grow from wards under our guard into strong and capable people in their own rights.
When they are on the playground in a shared space, where everyone else has a superficially similar, yet distinctly divergent path towards play, our children are experiencing a microcosm of all kinds of adult experiences. Everything from a railway station to the taxi rank to the average office. They learn that while they’ve got their own goals, and their own way to do them, they have to factor other children in so that they can do the same. Everyone needs to take their turn on the slide. You can’t just spend the entire lunch break on the swing. When children are playing, they are putting all the ideas of empathy and social engagement into important practice.
In a well designed outdoor play environment, there are often any number of things to climb on, to explore around, or to otherwise overcome. Except that when actually examined objectively and dispassionately, there is no “goal” so to speak, in playing on a climbing frame, beyond the sheer joy of the swinging and soaring upwards under one’s own power.
While climbing frames are indeed there for joy, they also give an opportunity for that most important of developmental lessons. The undirected challenge. The act of a child seeing something not just as an obstacle, but as a challenge, without direction, without suggestion, and then overcoming it. That is a powerful lesson. A child who can develop the desire and ability to come up with their own goals and accomplishments without adult structure or supervision gains confidence, a strength of character, and a tenacious spirit that can exist with or without opposition to stir it to action.
One of the best examples of this is the variety of interlocking rope network climbing frames you can find in parks and playgrounds all around the world. On the face of it they are just bizarre networks of ropes, crisscrossed into either elaborate geometric shapes or random patterns of thicker and thinner ropes and metal pipes. Yet the designers of these know exactly what they are doing. Somewhere, somehow, they have constructed a form that immediately tells all those children that see it that this is a challenge. A quest. A gauntlet being thrown down. Without instruction or direction, they know what they have to do. As they do it, they learn what it is to make the goals for themselves.
When children go out into a shared playspace and co-ordinate an imaginary game, not only is something truly marvellous and magical happening, but also something vitally important for that child’s future development.
So much of the real world we live in every day is an exercise in shared imagination. A company is a set of goals and tasks woven together. A brand is a set of statements, messages, and ideas. A country is a collective (mis)understanding of the history and governance of a particular time and place.
When a child co-ordinates with a group of other children to confirm that yes, that slide is the launch chute for a space-battlecruiser’s starfighter wing, or the swings are in fact the boulder traps that the hero has to dodge between before they can reach their enemy’s doom fortress, they are exercising a skill which will be vital in wider life. Those who can effectively organise to imagine the same thing together can truly change the world.
Learning to escape
The classic mantra of people who like to work hard and play hard makes the very strong, and also true, implication that playing is something that takes effort. Many people take years to learn just how they actually need to relax, and often it isn’t the very sedentary and simplistic habits people might think are essential to their downtime.
Playground time gives children a vital set of lessons in the form of learning how to have fun. More specifically, learning to have fun in such a way that they are not only entertained but reinvigorated and re-energised, ready to face down the challenges and opportunities that school or family life present. When a child plays without direction, they learn to recognise the experiences of fun and learn to make sense of them. Seeking out those experiences becomes far more than basic hedonism, but rather it turns into the means by which a brain is properly rested, reset, and ready for whatever comes next.
The playground is a precious place. Somewhere our children go not just for fun, but for growth, challenge, and development.