Helping children negotiate play spaces

Posted: 07/02/2023

As we all know, transitions can be hard. Starting a new job, leaving a relationship, going to university or moving to a new place can all create feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.

Funnily, it isn’t always the steep learning curve that inevitably comes with a new job or situation that leaves us feeling stressed, although this can certainly feel challenging. Navigating unstructured periods of time–in lunchrooms or breakrooms, informal conversations before things get started or at the end of meetings, the getting-to-know-you conversations, etc.—can be equally unsettling.

It can be the same for children going to school. The classroom usually has structure and rules, and someone to ask if they are unsure. While there can still be stresses that come with this, often there is comfort in having defined expectations.

However, it is those unstructured times in the playground or other periods of ‘free play’ or ‘free time’ that can feel the most overwhelming for many children. Luckily, there are a range of skills children and young people can develop to help them navigate these times.

If you are supporting children, young people or families experiencing new educational settings (or familiar ones) here are a few ideas of things you might explore with them:

  • Visit the space before school starts or in a quiet time to familiarise the child or young person with the environment
  • New places often have ‘hidden’ rules and expectations, particularly in relation to things like how you dress or speak, what games or activities happen where, what you eat or how you behave in different situations. It is almost inevitable that we will break some of these rules when we enter a new environment. When children or young people have unknowingly ‘broken’ these hidden rules, they might instinctively know they have done something ‘wrong’ but they may not know what it is. By talking about the idea of hidden rules, you can help them find strategies to uncover and navigate these expectations.
  • When you are asking children and young people to talk about their experiences at school, don’t just focus on the classroom but also ask about the playground or lunch breaks. What do they like doing? How do they invite others in? Is there anything they find challenging about these times?
  • Discuss the concept of personal space and boundaries. We often talk about these as ideas in generalist or abstract ways without exploring how you know when you have overstepped a boundary or have left someone feeling uncomfortable. By describing these concepts in concrete terms using activities to demonstrate the idea of personal space or boundaries, we can help make them concrete. How does your body let you know someone is in your space? How do you know when you are in someone else’s space? What might you notice about someone’s expression or body posture if they are feeling uncomfortable or upset? What can you do if this happens?
  • Encourage children to notice and celebrate their strengths, as well as the strengths of others. We can also encourage children to see their differences, and the differences of others, as something to celebrate. How can you include someone who is different to you? Can you describe one strengths of each person you spent time with today?
  • Discuss strategies for resolving conflict. Unstructured places are great places for children and young people to learn how to communicate what they need, and feel, in respectful ways, while also learning to respect what other people need. When you are in the middle of an argument, how can you stop and listen to what other people are feeling?
  • For younger children, talking and practicing sharing and taking turns can help them learn to navigate play spaces in respectful ways.
  • Support children to be creative and imaginative. While playgrounds and free play time can feel daunting for some children and young people, they are also places of exploration, innovation, creativity and growth. Encourage children to have fun, make mistakes, do the unexpected and connect with others.

If you’re interested in exploring more ideas for supporting children to navigate the playground, check out our upcoming workshop Navigating the Playground and Other Transitions.

Do you have any suggestions or tips for supporting children and young people to successfully navigate the playground and other ‘free’ time? We’d love to hear your ideas in the comments below!

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