Rules, uniform, timetables… With the coming of September and a new school term the fluidity of summer is shoe-horned into submission. Plump fruit on the trees, longer shadows and dewy mornings hail the scourge of school runs and rigorous routines. But is the return of a structured day so bad? Pick up a prematurely fallen leaf and see how the minutiae of veins create a network of fibers that hold the leaf in its perfect shape. There is beauty and comfort to be found in nature’s skeletal structures; security in form. Somehow that back to school feeling is made easier by the familiarity of patterns we create across our week in order to manage the family’s varying commitments of work, school, social and extra-curricular activities. But for all the necessary glue that holds our worlds together, somewhere between the deck chair and the desk chair we, and certainly our kids, still need a regular injection of what we wallowed in through summer – the unregulated spontaneity of unstructured play.
Even under the constraint of neatly ordered books, time and shepherded tasks, the creative mind muscles its way out through the gaps. It loves to push against structure; in a way it needs it as a launch pad, pouncing like a coiled spring released. But too much bustle and busyness and it goes into lock-down. Shoved into solitary confinement, with the hammer of rules and regulations banging outside. There’s a balance to be struck. Create open windows for freedom, play, stretch and springiness. Kids learn better after play and they become more social creatures when they are exposed to the bump and bounce of playing with other kids.
By play we don’t mean the purposeful, goal-orientated pursuits of ‘playing’ violin or ‘playing’ in the football team. We mean unfettered clowning around, horseplay and letting off steam. It may mean dressing up in silly costumes, hunting for ants, playing kiss chase, or fishing for crabs in rock pools. Or it may be leaping over the cracks in pavements to avoid a monster, or chasing seedpods floating on the breeze. Or maybe it’s just a bit of make-believe, make-do and mash-up. It might involve dolls or plastic bricks or train track or toy cars or glitter or playdoh. It might be messy paints or muddy puddles.
But for the mind and its imagination it is all magic. It helps kids connect and socialize and evolve and grow.
They learn to adapt and empathise and they learn self-reliance. Between the building blocks of structured learning, discipline and guidance, and simple, unadulterated play, those little minds are primed to roam great pastures of potential and possibility.
As shiny and smart as those new school shoes look, those small, soft and growing feet need to kick them off at the end of the day, spread their toes, tendons, muscles, bones and joints, and bounce across every bumpy, textured and contoured surface you can find. According to Whole Body Barefoot’s expert Katy Bowman we all benefit from getting our bodies moving, not just in heavily protected footwear on flat surfaces, but breaking out and bounding across natural terrain. I cycle past a park everyday where there’s a fallen tree, and without fail there is a kid scrambling over, balancing along it or leaping off it. We need to pivot, jump and adapt. Kids need to test their bodies, see what they can safely get away with.
According to Christopher McDougall in his book Born to Run, there have been more running injuries since the advent of ‘protective’ springy training shoes than when we wore thin rubber soled, canvas topped plimsolls. Kids and adults alike need to build strong feet, legs and thighs so we can play, scramble, hike, run, dance and shimmy across trails and off-pavement terrain; and we don’t need expensive trainers to do that.
Katy Bowman suggests that when you can’t get outside for a bit of rough and tumble, then recreate it indoors by piling all the cushions and pillows on the floor and cavorting across them as if they were the wilds of the wilderness. Make-believe the mountains and valleys and toe-step across the rivers and boulders of your imagination. You will help your kids build their balance and strengthen those little feet. Bodies need to bounce in between the boundaries of school and homework and guitar practice. And why not all join in. Take the stress out of the day before supper with a surge of spontaneous spacewalking and bedtime will beckon with deeply satisfying sleep for you all.
When kids are engaged in play, they slip into a zen-like state of contended enjoyment. They emerge from their water play, or sand play or finger painting or doodling, energized and bright eyed. As a kids, I felt intensely spiritual although devoutly atheist from as soon as I could fathom what that meant. Spirituality showed itself in anything that captured my imagination. Flecks of dust caught in the afternoon light could be angels – who knew? A giant overhanging willow tree was a place to go and lick my wounds and find solace. Other people’s kindness felt spiritual, and so did consoling a friend with a hug. Spirituality is rising above the mundane to feel something greater than ourselves. As adults we might feel it through religion or nature or art or philosophy, but kids can sense it too in simpler ways; through play or imagination or compassion. They might feel it through loving a pet or feeling loved by their parents, or in the silence after a bedtime story. Spirituality wafts through the spaces in between schedules and structures, after school and before drifting to sleep. It wraps around our off-spring in a cup of hot chocolate or under a soft blanket, or in the smell of fresh flowers on the window-sill or the flickering of a winter fire.
So while we wrestle through the busy days, let the timetables give way to timeout for imaginative and physical play and the gentle appreciation of the softer things in life.
Lou Hamilton is an artist, writer, well-being coach and creator of the illustrated book Brave New Girl- How to be Fearless published by Orion Spring.