By: Jennifer Botzojorns
En route to Helsinki, during our layover in Stockholm, I walked around the airport watching the parents and children. Two very different play structures were embedded in the landscape of the airport concourse — the first, a pirate ship. In the below deck galley was a pig, cannon and a table strewn with cards and coins- all realistic, sturdy, and just the right scale for a little person. Above deck was what one might imagine as the fore and aft of a seaworthy vessel. A little bit farther down, a tiny village structure filled a corner of the wide airport thoroughfare. There were several little houses with intricate details from bowls to cupboards, a wood stove, gigantic mushrooms, several reading cubbies, and a mural of Ollie skiing and meeting King Winter (from Ollie’s Ski Trip by Elsa Beskow).
In both of these structures there were children climbing and playing, The children were creating animated dialogues. I do not know Swedish, but I could tell from their words, hand gestures, expressions and tone that they were deep in their imagination. They were engaged and interacting with their young world, imagining other ships on the horizon, scallywags in the galley, or on the other structure, a quiet time in a corner of the house with family, or a frolicking in the snow on a ski trip.
I then tried to recall an analogous play structure in America. First, I do not recall a major airport with creative children’s activity blended in, as part of the landscape of the concourse. Second, the play structures I recall in American public spaces are more gross motor romper-room type spaces, not detailed and creative. Check out a sample American play structure. The bright contrasting colors and physical play promote a frenetic, running, jumping behavior. This creates a different world for our children. Might play structures influence creative thinking and learning for our children? What is important to think about when we develop play structures?
I then watched the parents. They stood and watched their children, smiling. They laughed and allowed the children to explore independently in the space. Again I contrasted this with a set of hovering parents, directing their son or daughter’s actions, barking thoughts and behaviors on how to negotiate a play structure. Granted, I am exaggerating, yet these images and their implications crossed my mind.
I reflect on what I have read about education in Finland. Other Scandinavian countries have an emphasis on letting children learn at their own pace through play. First and foremost they are young children, even in airports.
Small actionable item to consider back home:
Playspaces– think critically of the play spaces we provide for children.
Creative Structures: On our playgrounds, in our early grade play structures, create places for creative play, not just spaces for gross (and/or fine) motor coordination.
Intricate Details: Include details children have encountered in literature (such as pirate ships) or their lives (standard household items), so they have a social context for their play and can expand their thinking as they dive into their imagination while playing.
Child-Tough: Make the structures durable and to-scale for their busy little bodies.
New spaces: new faces: whenever a proposal for a new public children’s playground or space is up for consideration — in your school, library, park etc, become an activist and demand a creative space. Share this blog post with parents, community members, leaders, and educators so they can reflect on the importance of creativity and play.
Classroom design: It is not enough to have bright colored attractive playspaces. The play spaces must inspire imagination. If this seems too expensive or challenging, get some children together with handy parents to help you plan, there are hundreds of creative play space ideas online. Have a creative parent create/donate or build little scenes.
Let the children play: In our classrooms and on our playgrounds, during play time, allow physical structures so children can imagine and learn. Do not direct their activity as it stifles creativity. Use your observations to inform teaching and learning.