Family life

What toy-free schoolyards teach kids about play

Whether due to expense or philosophy, schoolyards without equipment can teach children a lot about the simple joys of imagination.

playing-outside

Isaac climbs a tree in “The Bush” behind his school. Photo: Jennifer Pinarksi

My children’s school playground looks like any other playground found across Canada. On the primary side of the schoolyard there are a set of swings, a low wooden play structure with a plastic slide, a plastic house and a sandbox. On the senior side of the yard, there’s another set of swings and a bigger piece of bright yellow and red play equipment, with monkey bars and ladders for the kids to scramble across.

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However, that’s not where my kids choose to play because beyond the standardized equipment is what they call “The Bush”—a thickly-forested area with footpaths trampled down by students. Interpretive signs share information on the different species of plants and animals that live in the bush behind the school. Bears, deer and the occasional beaver visit the schoolyard—two years ago my son brought home a picture of a bear with its nose pressed up against the window of his classroom. Ironically enough, there are no signs warning against the rampant poison ivy that grows there, mostly because the kids know to steer clear of “leaves of three.” The kids spend their recesses building forts from fallen logs or playing tag on the limestone boulders brought in to form an outdoor theatre.  It’s not uncommon for my kids to come home dirty, hands full of slivers and clothing full of burrs. The Bush behind the school is a magical place where the kids make up the rules and control the play—simply because there is no equipment there to guide them.

Does that mean a toy-free playground could—or should—be coming to your school?

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Marybeth Lima, Director of the Center for Community Engagement, Learning and Leadership at Louisiana State University, sees the benefits of equipment-free schoolyards. Lima toured an elementary school near LSU with students in her biological engineering design course recently and shared the experience in the New York Times Motherlode section. The school they visited did not have play equipment; instead it boasted a grassy field where kids used their imagination at recess time.

“My students are so imaginative that they don’t mind,” the school’s grade one teacher says. “They play imaginary football. Sometimes one child will take off a shoe and they’ll use the shoe for the football. Other times they’ll play imaginary kickball. They make up their own games, too. There’s ‘Let’s Dig Up George Washington,’ where they dig as deep into the ground as they can with their hands.”

Read more: Are kids too scared to play outdoors?

While sometimes schools like the one Lima toured choose not to have play equipment, others, like Vancouver’s Queen Victoria Elementary School, may be faced with an equipment-free school due to costs. The school’s aging play structure is set for demolition and may cost up to $150,000 to replace—and the money must come from fundraising rather than the school board’s budget. But would being playground-free really be such a bad thing?

While I admit my kids’ rural schoolyard is very different compared to a city schoolyard, the lessons that can be learned from an equipment-free playground are the same and can be summed in the lesson the Lima teaches her students: “Kids are the true experts at play. We are simply facilitators of the kids’ visions and creativity.”

Follow along as Jennifer Pinarski shares her experiences about giving up her big city job and lifestyle to live in rural Ontario with her husband, while staying home to raise their two young children. Read more Run-at-home mom posts or follow her @JenPinarski.