“Programming” for Play

Play is fundamental to all aspects of childhood and adolescent development. Why then does it currently feel so hard to uphold best practice in terms of supporting and facilitating real play experiences?

This article will provide you with a model of play which can inform your practice to assist you in developing quality ‘real play’ experiences for children. It will empower you to advocate for the importance of play in children’s lives and the resultant benefits. The Sandcastle Model of Play developed by Dr Jenny Sturgess provides a clear understanding of what play is and what elements are needed to truly call an experience play. It enables reflection on the areas we can influence in order to provide quality ‘real-play’ experiences for the children for whom we care. Examples of how this model has been applied in the development of the Jump Up Outdoors program are provided. The focus of this program is on unstructured outdoor play and aims to address the decline in outdoor play over the last few decades and the significant risks this poses to healthy child development.

What is play?

Let’s begin by adopting a common definition of play.

Play is an episode of activity that is child-chosen & viewed as play by the child. Each play episode includes some or all of the following, spontaneous, non-literal, pleasurable, flexible, means-oriented, intrinsically motivated, meaningful, active and rule-governed. Play occurs across the lifespan and encompasses a range of types. Play occurs in different social contexts, different physical contexts and in range of emotional or psychological contexts.

Sturgess,J. (2007), The Development of a Play Skills Self Report Questionnaire for 5-10 year old children & their parents/carers.

Every part of this definition is as important as the next, but let’s look more closely at the components child chosen and viewed by the child as play. Consider the following examples:

  • After a morning of errands, a young mother stops at a park so her toddler can have a play. The child is tired and cranky and does not engage in any games or play on the equipment. In this example, the mother is pleased she’s been able to fit in time to play and is able to tick it off her list for the day. However if we consider this example in the context of the definition of play , it is unlikely that the child would consider they have had a play experience, neither did they have much self direction in the experience.

In contrast, let us consider the following:

  • You’re in the midst of the morning routine and everyone should be putting shoes on and ready to walk out the door. Instead you find your child lying on the floor blowing a paper clip and a dust bunny down the hall…without their shoes on. In this example, the activity is child chosen and the child would in all likelihood agree that they had played. This example is not meeting the needs of the adult, nevertheless it fulfils the definition of play.

These examples demonstrate that in amidst our busy-ness and attempts to achieve results we tend to focus on outcomes and then work backwards to try to mould the play experience to meet the outcome. Through this process we often lose the very essence of play. However if we allow children to direct their own play, then they are more likely to engage in a ‘true play’ experience and as a consequence will reap the well researched benefits of play.

Sandcastle Model of Play

The Sandcastle Model of Play (Sturgess, J. 2007) provides a model which allows us to preserve the integrity of play and achieve the required outcomes. If we can create a set of circumstances that allows children to truly play, the children use their current skills, extend their limits as they assess risk and they engage with and learn from others.

The first five elements of the model represent aspects of the individual child, so are not within our direct control.

  • Upturned buckets of sand – developmentally determined skills that are supportive of play, such as social, communication, cognitive, symbolic, physical, organisational, adaptive, affective and self concept skills.
  • Body of the castle – specific play skills such as the ability to negotiate rules of play, use found objects to construct something fun etc. Play skills develop with time, experience and nourishing environments.
  • Pinnacle of the sandcastle – personal playful style of the of the child including toy preferences, talkativeness in play, preference for type of play, etc.
  • The ocean – child’s personality which flows into the moat.
  • The flag – the child’s ownership of play – integral component of the model as play is only play if the child perceives it as such.

The next four elements of the model, we are able to influence. Focussing efforts here, can have the greatest impact on providing good quality play experiences. Jump Up Outdoors uses these elements of the model as the framework when planning and developing their outdoorplay program, as evidenced in the examples below.

  • The sky – the physical environment in which the child lives and interacts.

The physical environment at Jump Up Outdoors is outdoors and incorporates as much variety of natural elements as possible, including:

  • Touch sensations -prickles, mud, grass, dirt, tree back
  • Landscapes – flat open spaces, hills, creeks
  • Vegetation – tall established trees, low grasses, young trees

In addition, the unpredictability of the natural world infinitely increases the range of play opportunities. For example, one day a favourite play space was covered in prickles. The children avoided this area for a while but it didn’t take long before a cardboard footpath through the prickles was constructed so that this favourite play area was back in use again.

We could not plan or orchestrate any of this, but by being outdoors in natural environments, unanticipated and unimagined adventures unfold as the children assess and manage the risks around them so that they can get on with playing.

  • Moat – set of circumstances that best support a playful episode, including physical resources and time.

At Jump Up Outdoors very little structure is provided regarding what to play and how the children spend their days. By removing structure, we are essentially providing children with time.

The other powerful component that helps fill our ‘moat’, are the physical resources. A collection of loose materials is available and the children have free access to them. Providing a range of loose objects further expands the play opportunities for the children.

  • Drawbridge – stimulus the child recognises as the stimulus to play. It is something spontaneous that the child recognises in themselves and / or the environment that they seize for play.

At Jump Up Outdoors we have an ‘orange hat rule’ which allows children to play anywhere in our so long as they can see a leader in an orange hat. As adults we aim to be as unobtrusive as possible. Children are great at lowering the drawbridge, they find opportunities to be playful in just about any situation, context or environment. Children are the masters of play and it is essential that they are provided opportunities to play in their own way (child directed play).

Often, due to time constraints, curriculum requirements, our own stress etc, adults are quick to wrench the drawbridge back up and nip ‘nonsense’ in the bud. Instead we need to find playfulness within, model playfulness for our children and keep an eye out for those moments that children seize for play so that we can cherish them and nurture them.

  • The air – social and cultural context in which play is occurring. Currently, the context of play is severely compromised, polluted by worries about risk, safety and the pressure to achieve outcomes.

The current context for play is a dismal picture and at times can feel overwhelming. However, if there is a big problem, there is always to possibility to make a big positive change. So I encourage you to start pushing back, armed with the sand castle model of play, to advocate within your circles of influence for what is in the best interests of children.

Think playfully, imaginatively and laterally. Remain true to the principles of child development and play. Keep your passion and resolve to make childhood a positive place for children. If we each commit to this, then it is like the natural environment itself, there are a myriad of possibilities.

Written by Madeline Avci. Mum of three young men. Occupational Therapist. Owner of Jump Up for Kids (including Jump Up Outdoors). Madeline is passionate about making the outdoors part of everyone’s day and supporting families to navigate the challenges of our modern world.

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