The following presentation is from a study I have titled Barns kroppslighet i barnehagen – “Physical children in kindergarten”. In the period I worked on this study I spent time with children of two kindergartens for about 16 days for four months. I observed the children, and sometimes I played with them. I also observed them going on excursions, heading for their children’s places in the local woodland. My intention was to learn more about toddlers’ physicality playing outdoors. I intended to let the children explain to me bodily what was important to them. My intention furthermore was to catch the essence of play as a phenomenon. I wanted to understand and describe children’s world of play. Among my sources of inspiration during this study was Dutch-born Canadian professor Max van Manen’s book Researching lived experience: Human science for an action sensitive pedagogy (1997).

Skauen kindergarten has a considerable amount of natural areas within its boundaries. Here is rugged terrain, huge rocks and steep slopes, many trees and large holes in the ground creating ponds on rainy days. A lot of loose materials in all kinds of shapes, like stones, twigs, branches, poles, boards and planks, are spread around. Skauen has traditional outdoor play equipment, too, like swings, slides and sandboxes, and a track suited for bicycle rides.

Sletta kindergarten has less nature and more asphalt, but the children nevertheless have access to areas of privacy. Personally, I found the opportunities for play more limited at Sletta than at Skauen, but Sletta’s employees seemed content. They told me, though, that they probably were going to apply for funds in order to improve the kindergarten’s outdoor area.

Sletta’s children have excellent conditions for bicycle riding. A steep hill on the premises lets them achieve great speed riding downhill, and they love it. The kindergarten also of course has traditional equipment like slides, swings, sandboxes, and two basketball baskets up on a wall. There is a large natural area in the vicinity, and during the weeks I spent much time with the children as they went on excursions to various places in this area every Tuesday.

Sletta’s children, or their parents, come from a number of countries. When I met the children in August, they had just returned from their long summer holidays. I noticed that in the beginning the children found walking in rugged terrain trying and exhausting. The surroundings were rough and challenging, and the rain did not make things easier, making rocks and stones slippery. The children did not experience the two first days in this terrain as pleasant. Their motor and coordinative capabilities were challenged beyond their abilities. Although the two first days did not offer them much fun, they nevertheless got a lot of practice walking slippery paths.

The third Tuesday in the woods the kindergarten teacher tried to engage the children in building a den, but the children were not in the mood. Hungry children stood rigidly around in a circle and their bodies signaled ‘no play now’. The way I saw it, they wanted time to get used to the woodland surroundings. It was clear to me that moving about ever so modestly was more than enough for them at the time. Still they had a few nice experiences; they found small animals of various sorts, which excited them. The kindergarten teacher knew where to find blueberries and blackberries, that was great fun; some of the children had never eaten berries directly from the mound before.

The first two Tuesdays we were supposed to return to the kindergarten for lunch, but long before returning time the children announced they were hungry. This, probably, was part of the reason why the children failed to achieve a play mood. The children were dressed in rainwear and wellingtons, quite uncomfortable in rugged terrain on slippery ground. It rained on the third day as well, and finally we took shelter in a lean-to to have some food. The children were glad to have food, and they waited patiently as their teacher prepared their sandwiches.

Having eaten, we walked along a path taking us out of the woodland and down to a large meadow and a creek. We had spent two and a half days in the woods, and I had not spotted one second of play, but here, by the creek running through the meadow, everybody all of a sudden kind of exploded into activities. This scenario with children at play there on the meadow really was something unique. Their play was passionate, no less, and I shall try to describe it.

Children at play by a creek running through a meadow

The very moment we had left the woods behind us and we entered the meadow, someone touched the on-switch: the children all started running around! They ran hither and thither, leaping back and forth over the creek. They enjoyed themselves immensely. We had been at the creek once before, but then they had not been allowed to jump across the creek; now they jumped and leaped as much as they pleased. The creek ran approximately a foot and a half below the grassy bank, and I could see the children’s excitement the first time they gave it a try. A challenge, indeed! Running around as they pleased and being allowed to jump across the creek made them overjoyed. They chased each other, some ran till they stumbled, but quickly got up on their feet again. Sometimes they seemed to fall willingly just because of the fun of it.

Observing the playing children was a great experience for me, too. I had been with them for more than two days without observing much enthusiasm, but now they were fast-moving happy children, all of them. They chased each other over and over again, and they jumped across the creek, over and over again. I ran after one of the boys, and that made him howl with laughter. Luckily no adults decided to organize games; the children succeeded all by themselves. Here one child chased another, the next moment the one who had been chased, chased the chaser, and sometimes groups of children chased each other simultaneously.

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First they stumbled, and then they played in the grass. Photo: Merete Lund Fasting.

Two boys ran till they keeled over, and down on the ground they began fun-fighting. A few minutes later they rose to their feet and continued running.

For me it was really great fun to have the opportunity to run, jump and play with the children, being able to observe such delightful, passionate play fully organized by the children themselves. They were smitten by their own activities, expressing happiness, and they were coping. Why was play so easy here? Because they were familiar with this kind of terrain and ground.

I refer to Csikszentmihalyi’s (1990) theory and figure (figure 1, page 33): On the meadow the children were in their flow zone. In the slippery rugged terrain, they were not; there the challenges outmatched their abilities and competences. The children being fed and full also helped raise their spirits. The adults running around with the children, participating in their games, probably contributed to their joy and motivation, too. Of course, the open meadow was much plainer than the woodland, so might that have helped? And last but not least, they were allowed to jump across the creek!

I observed the boy with the least developed motion competence in the group. He had jumped across the creek a couple of weeks earlier, although he had not been allowed to. At that time, he had been very nervous before jumping; it was quite a stretch across, and he had been far from sure he could do it. He jumped and landed like a sack of potatoes, but he had done it and was very proud. I winked at him to show him I had seen his jump, and to say, ‘well done’. He himself could not tell anyone, as jumping the creek was not allowed that day. Watching him now, a couple of weeks later, was a nice experience. Now he and his mates could jump and leap as much as they could manage. The boy’s physical competence improved considerably during this stop on the meadow, jumping to and fro over the creek. He worked with his balance at landing, adjusting his strength, rhythm, reaction and eye and foot-coordination (Jagtøien & Hansen, 2007; Osnes et al., 2015).

Water is something special to most children. The Skauen and Sletta children love playing with water, and they love bathing. The children’s motivation for jumping across the creek might have been stimulated by the fact that jumping the creek was disallowed just some few days before. Perhaps jumping over creeks is not something these children usually are allowed to do? Not long ago a child fell into the creek, he was quickly rescued and safe and sound, but of course soaked. The memory had stuck, clearly making creek-jumping a scaryfunny activity (see p. 48) (Sandseter, 2010).

Having played on the meadow and jumped across the creek, the children proceeded to a steep slope. They proved themselves excellent climbers! They climbed the quite slippery rock, sliding and gliding. This slope game was an unorganized, improvised and delightful activity. The children took care of each other climbing up and sliding down. When the kindergarten employees after a while asked them to stop, for fear that their expensive rainwear might be torn, I could not disagree. Not all parents are wealthy.

I learned a lot about play on these occasions. I learned that professionals and parents must take children’s play seriously, we must not be prejudiced and we have to give children the opportunity to build up a surplus of vitality. We must allow them time to play.

Let us accompany the children to their own playgrounds. Sometimes, however, we will have to bring them along to places and activities they are not always all too happy with. Next time they may cope with what they did not cope with a short while ago. I had almost stopped thinking of these children as playful, and a few moments later they proved me wrong, giving me one of the greatest ‘play shows’ I have ever experienced as a research worker.

That day the children disclosed to me much of the core or magic of play. Genuine play may reveal itself whenever you least expect it. Play is sometimes a demonstration of energy (Gadamer, 2004); children often radiate happiness at coping when playing. Games of play often change character, but usually and to a large degree they are physical communication and bodies in motion. A woodland may be a demanding playground when the ground is slippery and rainwear-dressed children cannot move very comfortably. Walking in rugged and slippery terrain helped them, however, to train their balance, and after a few days their agility had improved considerably.

Remember, however, to bring along satisfying amounts of food and drink. We all need more of both outdoors, kindergarten children, too, of course. We want our children to be vital and active, and we, the professionals, need the necessary surplus of strength in order to support the children.

Water play

Water was the most engrossing and magical thing children enjoyed playing with during the time I observed them. It rained a lot, and they had access to a lot of water at the kindergarten. Everywhere in nature water was plentiful that autumn, and Skauen and Sletta children alike delighted in playing with it. They knew well where to fill their buckets from puddles. They enjoyed jumping up and down in puddles, or just sitting down in them, to feel the water or playing with their spades. The combination of water and mud or sand was a feast!

The one day I spent at Skauen kindergarten I observed a number of children playing in a puddle for almost two hours. The puddle changed considerably during those two hours; at first it was almost a little pond, but in the end it was merely a mudhole. In the beginning two boys sat beside the little pond or puddle, filling water into their buckets. A little later they began throwing stones into the puddle, and they built a bridge across it from available boards and planks. They balanced across stones and across the bridge. After a while they removed the bridge, and soon they were busy playing at the nearby slope instead.

Now two other boys and two girls approached the puddle. They trudged back and forth in it, and it became less and less of a puddle and more and more of a mudhole. Some minutes later they began jumping from the slope down into the mudhole; there they were stuck, in a way, so much that they had a little trouble keeping their balance. By moving forwards a little bit they regained their balance and were able to step out of the mud. Next they began pushing each other ever so carefully, with adjusted strength so that no one fell.

These four children kept on playing at and in the mudhole for quite a long time, very delighted, almost ecstatic. In our article Magien i uteleken (“The Magic of Outdoor Play”, Løndal & Fasting, 2016) my colleague professor Knut Løndal (at the Oslo Metropolitan University) and I discuss this kind of play as a sort of holistic learning.

The children had a truly wonderful time playing in and at the puddle, they enjoyed it intensely and their body language signaled that they found it slightly unreal that they could go on playing like this forever and ever. They were in an emotionally magic or patic state, expressing physically that they felt the mud, all the time making bodily adjustments to avoid falling.

One boy entered the kindergarten building in order to wash his hands. He did so several times. Soon, however, he gave up this washing process, realizing he became dirty again almost immediately, and, after all, being part of the game was more important than washing hands. He experienced that mud drying on one’s hands made them slightly stiff, but he made up his mind: let it so be!

A little later another two boys arrived; they had not observed the puddle play. They watched the puddle, and the first boy asked the second: shall we jump? The first boy obviously very much wanted to jump. The second boy, on the other side, said this was ‘disgusting’, the other children were dirty, and he would not jump because he did not want to be dirty like them.

All of a sudden, the first boy jumped into the puddle. He became muddy all over, also his face became covered in mud. He could not see the mud on his face, but he felt it. He stood there for a long while with his eyes shut, and I could see him wrinkle his face intensely, sensing the mud. I looked at him: would he start crying, or what? The seconds passed, as he was standing there trying to understand the situation, making grimaces. His tactile faculties helped him understand that his face was covered with mud. Then he opened his eyes, winking several times, his whole body telling the surroundings that this was something incredible, an unbelievably marvelous feeling! He was standing there, a perfectly happy boy.

A third boy arrived. He looked at this mud-covered specimen. The third boy placed himself by the puddle, bent his knees and bowed his head so deep it touched the mud. No one said a word. But then the game was over, and all the children marched to the kindergarten building. They were hosed with water before entering.

This example supports Merleau-Ponty’s (1962) view: children are physical. They explore, investigate, examine, experience and marvel at their surroundings by means of their bodies.

Anders’ development at play

Anders was a very careful boy the first time I met him in August. He was the youngest in his group, moving about rather silently, playing alone. I observed that one of the kindergarten teachers helped him in a very simple, but still brilliant way: she followed him to children she knew that he already knew, and introduced him to play with them. That was all the help he needed. When introduced, he stayed with his playmates. He became motivated and involved, and he got role models, with whom he played, ran around, rode bicycles and threw balls.

One day Anders met Henrik, who, standing on a chair, threw a flat triangular wooden board along, saying it was a boomerang. Anders found a similar piece of wood and joined the game. The boys were hilarious when throwing, climbing down from the chair, fetching, climbing up on the chair again, throwing, etc.

Anders undoubtedly developed into a more self-confident boy while playing with Henrik. Anders’ motor competences improved considerably during the months August–November, and his physical happiness at his own progress was evident. Anders, always this very careful, anxious boy, turned into this independent boy with self-confidence, loving to play. He obviously was very happy together with his playmates. What would have happened if an observant teacher had not noticed him? Probably he would have remained lonely. Anders was not the complaining sort, nor did he suffer in any way. There were, however, a lot of children in the kindergarten and in the playground, and Anders was a little too small to easily find the few he knew. Thanks, then, that the teacher noticed!

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A demanding kind of play. Photo: Merete Lund Fasting.

Once I observed Anders playing push and pull with two other boys behind the slide. This was the second to last day I spent with the children during my study. Push and pull is a complicated game, demanding a high degree of body control on behalf of the participants. Anders, however, now possessed the physical abilities that allowed him to take part in any kind of play.

As already mentioned, Skauen kindergarten had at its disposal a lot of loose materials inspiring children’s creativity and playfulness. They transported sticks and poles of various kinds on their bikes, and they carried boards and planks to the top of the kindergarten boat. They also used poles and planks for constructing steeplechase tracks in the nearby woodland.

Long planks were used for walking the plank (the pirate way!) from the boat. Sticks and twigs became food and gold. All these loose materials were never tidied away, so the next day they could continue their games immediately.

What we professionals ought to reflect upon, is the fact that for children, often toddlers, entering the outdoor playground often is a quite overwhelming experience. A child does not always easily recognize a friend or two in a multitude of children, or someone he or she might want to play with. The area is, for a child, large, huge, even, and the usual thing is that all kindergarten children are outdoors simultaneously. This means that a child may need assistance in order to find playmates.

Another story about another employee saving the day is this: After playing for a while in the woodland, Sletta children and employees had lunch. After lunch everybody moved towards a huge rock, one side being like a climbing wall. Then one teacher did something really astonishing and brilliant: without saying a word she just climbed the most difficult part of the wall. Reaching the top, she just sat down, and there she remained.

The children, too, began climbing the wall, choosing different routes. Reaching the teacher on top, they sat down with her. Choosing the right side of the wall provided easier climbing, and choosing the left side provided the more difficult. The children found their functional limits. I observed that everyone seemed to put themselves to the test, and they seemed to cope within their individual limits. The teacher dealt with a large group of children without ever raising her voice.

References

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper & Row.

Gadamer, H.-G. (2004). Truth and method. London: Continuum.

Jagtøien, G. L. & Hansen, K. (2007). I bevegelse: sansemotorikk – leik – observasjon. Oslo: Gyldendal undervisning.

Løndal, K. & Fasting, M. L. (2016). Magien i utetiden. In: M. Øksnes & E. Sundsdal (eds.). Læring (vol. 2, pp. 95–116). Oslo: Cappelen Damm Akademisk.

Merleau-Ponty, M. (1962). Phenomenology of Perception. London: Routledge.

Osnes, H., Skaug, H. N. & Kaarby, K. M. E. (2015). Kropp, bevegelse og helse i barnehagen (2. edition). Oslo: Universitetsforlaget

Sandseter, E. B. H. (2010). Scaryfunny: a qualitative study of risky play among preschool children. Doctoral thesis. Trondheim: The Norwegian University of Sciences and Technology (NTNU).

van Manen, M. (1997). Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for an Action Sensitive Pedagogy. London, Ontario: Althouse Press.