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Saying Yes To Play

Saying Yes To Play

Think back to your own childhood. Where was your favorite place to play? What are some of your memories of that place, and what did you do there? Were you an explorer? a builder? a risk taker? a mess maker? Were you a free-range kid? Did you do things your parents didn't know about?

Through my work designing natural playscapes for young children, I hear all sorts of inspiring stories from adults about where and how they played as kids:

"We were always down in the creek looking for frogs and skipping stones."

"We played by the railroad tracks."

"We built our own forts and made our own play."

"We played outside in the neighborhood until the street lights came on."


I'm always honored and happy to hear these stories. They remind me of my own free-ranging childhood. But, when I ask those same adults if their children play that way today, the answer, sadly, is often no. If I ask them if they would let their children play like they did as kids, people say, "No way!"

Yes, times have changed. There are definitely more pressures on children, families, and schools for safety and success, and so many things competing for our children's time and attention. We want the best for our children and to keep them safe from injury. But in doing so, have we become overprotective? Are today's children too sheltered and too limited in what they are free to do? Shouldn't they be allowed to just play?

Through play children can learn, create, imagine, discover, communicate, collaborate, try new skills, and make new friends. Play is the natural way children grow and develop their brains and bodies. Play is hard-wired, built in, beautiful, and fun. Children need opportunities to run, dig, climb, build, make a mess, even fall down and get a scratch. Children need the chance to take risks and try doing things they've never tried before. Humans learn by doing.


Certain risky play behaviors by children may make adults nervous. We all have our lines and limits. But adults are now working hard to find ways to say yes more often. We are learning to first take a step back and observe the play.

Trust our children. Support their play. What is your yes? What is your no? How can you say yes more often?

Nature play spaces are being built in school yards, child-care centers, parks, and private residences that offer interest and opportunities for exploration and wonder in all seasons. Instead of just metal monkey bars, these landscapes for play incorporate hills, trees, gardens, rocks, sand, water, sculpture, and more. Loose parts, such as boards, balls, PVC pipe, fabric, tires, pots, pans, shovels, stumps, logs, pool noodles, stimulate children's excitement for play, construction, engineering, and art projects. To the adult eye, these are discarded materials. To the child's eye, they're endless possibilities!


So what can you do to say yes more often? How can you support play? I always like to say, "Dream Big, Start Small, and Never Stop." Small changes, step by step, can have a big impact on children's lives. You don't have to have kids building scrap-wood towers with hammers and nails (yet). Start with a cardboard box in the yard. Stand back and see what they do. Give children some shovels and a designated area to dig. Step back and watch. Bring in some loose parts. The children may have to get used to you not saying no, but once they do, they'll go for it. All children want to play. All children want to say yes. But it's up to the adults to let them. Find new ways to say yes. Take deep breaths. Step back. Be amazed. Repeat.

How can you say yes?

About Rusty Keeler

Rusty Keeler is a play-space designer who has worked for nearly 30 years with hundreds of community, school, parks, university, and child-care leaders to dream, design, and construct beautiful outdoor environments for children. He has worked in more than 30 states and throughout Canada, Europe, China, Australia, and New Zealand. He is one of the pioneers in the movement to reconnect children to nature, and his designs reflect his sincere desire to create a more beautiful world in which to grow and explore. He is a frequent keynote speaker and presenter at conferences, communities, and colleges worldwide. Rusty lives with his family among the gorges and creeks in Ithaca, NY.

You can find more from Rusty at his website, rustykeeler.com

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