Faculty Essays

The Nature of Play: Lessons from the Valley

Written by Colin Gleason on March 16, 2016.

AS THE FAMILY car climbed the driveway to our new home, I remember looking hopefully out the window, then concluding — and perhaps even muttering gloomily to my siblings — that it was nothing special. For a ten-year-old boy who stepped gingerly into any new situation and generally disdained change, this was not an unexpected reaction. But I should have reserved judgment until I saw the backyard, because once I peered around the other end of the house, my eyes widened, and my apprehension vanished. Woods. Acres and acres of woods. Trees, brush, and thickets as far as I could see. Before long, my siblings and I were deep in the woods, our new backyard. Over the years we would discover many treasures there: monstrous oaks and maples, deer trails and dens, delicious mulberries, hanging vines, an old cow pond, and best of all, a creek. I probably never adequately thanked my parents for giving a young boy such a gift, but I know now how truly blessed I was.

Today, I watch the lower school boys at The Heights sprint headlong every morning into the Valley with bags and papers trailing in the wind behind them — and with the same exuberance I once had — to enjoy the woods before them. Children hear a primordial calling from the woods; and not only woods, but also valleys, fields, creeks, meadows, ravines, rocks, hills, and all of God’s playgrounds. My time at The Heights, both as a student and a teacher, has taught me the critical importance of providing time and space for children to enjoy the natural playgrounds of creation. Unfortunately, between over-structured schools and over- scheduled families, these spaces seem reserved only for vacations or the infrequent weekend excursion. But what are students missing when schools take away natural recess space and sufficient time for play? Is recess more than just a break from learning? And do children have different ideas about play than the misguided conceptions of adults? To the boys of the Valley, the answers are clear.

The subject of children’s playtime and freedom has filled many pages of recent magazines, newspapers, and educational journals. It’s wonderful when data and studies emerge to confirm common sense. A joint study by psychologists at the University of Colorado and the University of Denver published in June 20141 revealed that children who had less unstructured free time demonstrated lower levels of executive functioning. In other words, this study showed that children who are always told what to do and when to do it are not very good at making plans and decisions on their own. Though not very mind-blowing, it is good to see this subject garnering more public attention. While many writers have explored the subject of play and freedom, there is not quite enough being discussed about where they should play and have this freedom, and what they should find there.

The Playground Plague

It’s clear that folks are beginning to see playas important these days, but perhaps theyare lacking a proper understanding of true play. Nowhere is this clearer than in modern playground design. The world has more adult-built playgrounds now than it ever has, and yet children are more sedentary than ever. The allure of screens has monopolized much of children’s schedules, and the effects are glaring. Childhood obesity, depression and ADHD have been on the rise for the last three decades while creativity in children appears to be lagging. Local legislators and schools have tried to wage the battle for children’s physical and emotional health by building a multitude of playgrounds. So why hasn’t this worked? Why do children not want to move from their couches to these outdoor playgrounds? One of the biggest reasons for the lack of universal appeal in modern playgrounds is the fact that adults have constructed them for the wrong reasons. Though built with good intentions, most have been designed without regard to how children like to play. They build these playgrounds to ensure exercise and the development of gross motor skills; or they build them with no other end in mind, except safety; or, worst of all, they build the playgrounds to entertain children. When the minds behind playgrounds build spaces without an eye towards imagination, exploration, discovery, and creativity, it is clear that the playground designers lack a true vision of holistic play.

Years ago, several fellow teachers and I took a group of Heights boys on a field trip to a local park, which boasts a beautiful garden in which to study Natural History. After learning about the trees and plants, we climbed the hill to let the boys play at the playground — a playground that I loved as a boy. I remember it as an expansive series of wooden forts and castles two stories high, with fantastic slides, bridges, and tunnels connecting the towers and platforms. This day, when our students made it up the hill to the playground, they hesitated, and I stopped with shock. The county had torn down the old wooden playland and erected various assorted metal and plastic structures. The boys quickly scattered around, jumping on a bouncy spring here, sitting on a spinning seat there, and moving from one structure to the next as though they were playing games in an arcade. Many playgrounds today (some that can cost over a million dollars to build) make this mistake. They provide amusements, but not spaces to play in. They provide some cause-and-effect contraption to get a giggle or reaction out of a child. Of course, there is nothing harmful in this, but it is limiting, and it is not true play. Some would argue that this immediate gratification approach is necessary to engage the ADHD generation. (The same argument is made for the dumbing down of children’s literature.) Kids these days need to be reached on a quick and superficial level because they don’t have the attention span for anything more, some believe. But the boys in the Valley disagree.

This trend seems to have started back in the 1980s, perhaps stemming from a paranoia over safety requirements and the bureaucracy of the insurance industry, but the results have had an effect on more than the safety of children’s play. Playgrounds began to dictate the way children played. My brother tells the story of how, as a young boy, he would go to recess at his parish school and get lost in a world of imaginative play with his friends. He remembers the day the school put up a small metal and plastic jungle gym. As he caught sight of the enormous, plastic, spinning tic-tac-toe game, the spell was suddenly broken. This was a clash of two worlds that he just couldn’t understand. The school — and the jungle gym manufacturer — had tried to inject their idea of “play” into a world where the students had been perfectly capable of making up their own games. (To this day, I don’t believe I’ve ever seen children actually playing tic-tac-toe on one of those jungle gyms.) For some reason, as adults, we have a hard time trusting that children are having fun when they are left to play on their own without “toys.” After ten years of watching Heights boys play in the Valley I am convinced that there exists in children a capacity to enjoy themselves and their natural surroundings in a way that defies the literal Xs and Os of adult understanding.


Children need spaces that encourage them to imagine a reality that transcends the immediate. They are attracted to simple, natural materials and colors because these elements help them to see something else in their mind.

To a child, a wooden stick may be a better ‘sword’ than the more realistic gilt-and-enamel version from the toy store. And when he or she is tiredof swordplay, that wooden stick, in an instant, becomes a spirited but deeply loyal horse…

Tomorrow or the next day, the stick may form the beginning of a stockade or the wall of a house. That wooden stick, so simple, so abstract, has almost unlimited potential. It can be anything the child imagines it to be.

Children also prefer structures that are connected to one another because these offer a wider range of possibilities for imagination. My siblings, friends, and I used to love that old wooden playground in part because we could imagine that we were knights or soldiers defending a bridge, or spies in an enemy encampment, or exotic explorers jumping from one island to the next without stepping on the ground of woodchips, which was really burning lava. We were high up in a parapet overlooking the woods, or we were lookouts in a crow’s nest. The boys on the field trip at the renovated county mega-park were not able to even attempt this type of play. Not only were the bright blue, yellow, and silver structures made of fiberglass and aluminum, but they were also separated by sometimes more than thirty feet. Because of this, the play pieces offered the children no options other than those for which they were conceived. They were big, highly detailed toys, buttons to be pushed, rather than worlds to get lost in. I must admit that I was secretly proud when after only a few minutes the boys began to ask, one by one, if we “could go now.”


That field trip taught me a great deal about children’s sense of play, for immediately after lunch at the new county park, we left to explore a little-known gem of Montgomery County, the Burnt Mills Gorge. This is a stretch of the Northwest Branch, a large creek that flows into the Anacostia River. As it passes an old abandoned mill, the creek cascades down a quarter mile in a series of small waterfalls surrounded by gigantic boulders that stretch along and above the stream. The boys got out of the buses and bolted straight for the rocks as if they were long-lost friends. They clambered around the rocks and into the stream. Some explored the small caves while others climbed overhanging trees. A few boys fashioned twigs for a canoe and watched how far they could make it down the rapids. They wanted to explore every inch. They scoured the place like a pack of happy bloodhounds. They hunted for some certain treasure that they would only know when they found it. They foraged with their senses, looking at, listening to, and touching everything in reach as if they were the first humans to ever set foot there. This stretch of water, woods, and rocks made up a natural network of wonder, where the boys imagined all kinds of worlds and lived out all kinds of stories. When it was time to leave after two hours of free play in the gorge, the boys clamored to stay longer.


That experience was a good reminder as to why lower school teachers at The Heights mainly choose field trips that involve exploring the great outdoors. Our students prefer to tramp through a swamp, hike a mountain trail, or scour a meadow rather than attend an indoor tour or demonstration. These are experiences that truly fit our curriculum, and not just that of Natural History. In all subjects, our aim is to immerse the boys in reality rather than tell them about it. Young children are eager to find out about life, and their way of finding out about it is through their senses: touching, smelling, seeing, hearing (and sometimes tasting!) the world around them. The quintessential Valley field trip is creeking. Heights boys will creek the stretch of Cabin John nearest the school many times before their days in the Valley are over. As fifth graders they will go all the way from The Heights to the Potomac River, their final creeking trip before leaving the lower school. When the boys arrive at the creek after the short hike from campus, they scream, run, and then jump in like Golden Retrievers after a thrown stick. They trudge as far as two miles upstream, sliding down muddy banks, jumping off low-hanging trees, and skipping stones. They also enjoy the creek in less rambunctious ways. They turn over every stone in the water, searching for crayfish or snakes with the anticipation of treasure hunters. They stalk minnows and eels with their aqua nets. A few will cup toads found on the nearby path and run their fingers over the rough skin. Sometimes you will see a boy just sitting on the rocky bank, examining every stone within his reach, like an appraiser handling a valuable antique. In every sense of the word, they are playing here in the Cabin John Creek, but more importantly, through their play, they are discovering their world. I will always remember one boy who found a cluster of wild mushrooms above the creek’s bank. After crouching down next to them and pulling one up, he bellowed with wonder, “Ew! Guys, get over here and smell this thing! It’s so disgusting!” After his pals joined him, they echoed the chorus so often heard on creeking trips: “Awesome!”


At The Heights, we are truly blessed that we do not need to take an excursion to find play in a natural setting. The Valley is a near-perfect playground. It is a natural space with varied terrain that combines hills, woods, a grassy area, and a flat play space with wood chips. It provides both deciduous and coniferous forests with a hill dividing the two, down which the boys snow sled in the winter and leaf sled in the fall. At any recess you can find boys climbing American Hollies, swinging on vines that dangle from the Red Cedars, or making forts out of the dead branches strewn about the forest floor. The Valley provides all the ingredients for boys to imagine, to explore, and to discover, but also to recreate: to build and make things of their own. The natural materials found in abundance — rocks, sticks, mud, leaves, acorns, pinecones, and other gifts of the trees — become various media for the students’ art of recess. The Valley dwellers may boast of their fort-building prowess, but their repertoire is not limited to forts. They make intricate tools and weapons fashioned out of sticks and vines; they construct multi-level, miniature dams for the small streams that occur after a rain; they even try their hands at their own birds’ nests made from pine needles and moist clay. Marjorie Kinnan Rawling’s The Yearling tells the story of Jody, a boy who often finds solace and joy in his nearby woods. In one scene, Jody huddles beside a creek and builds a small watermill out of twigs and leaves, entranced by the “magic of motion.” When he sees his finished work, “a spring of delight boil[s] up within him as irresistibly as the spring of the branch.”Childrendeeplydesiretomakeand to build. “Hands-on learning” is a buzz phrase tossed about by elementary school educators, but what children most enjoy getting their hands on is nature. In a way, they are taking an active part in the creation around them, and learning firsthand what it means to use what God has given us to make something good and beautiful. When asked why he enjoyed building forts so much, one Valley student admitted thoughtfully, “Because it feels like we’re building something real.”

The Gift of Play

Children are true environmentalists. Not in a superficial, political way, but because they are the most sensitive to the gifts of nature, and thus, they are the most intimate with it. When visitors come to The Heights and watch the boys at play, they invariably comment on how much life there is abounding in the Valley. There is no single game being played, nor any game being organized by an adult. There are one hundred boys scrambling off in every direction, some together, some alone, and all of them interacting with the nature around them in some intimate way. They have several opportunities for this: three recesses comprising almost one-fifth of their school day, not including before and after school. This does take time away from the classroom, but at The Heights, play is part of the curriculum. They learn nature and they love nature because they play in it, and ultimately, this is the true lesson of free, natural play: it is a gift. God intended us to be happy, and he intended us to play. Interacting with nature on an intimate level teaches us that there was a thoughtful artist behind it all. It teaches us that His creation is good and true and beautiful, and He wants us to experience it firsthand. Even in a literal sense, one can look at ocean waves and summertime fireflies as childlike proof that God intended for us to play. He meant for sand to be made into sandcastles, snow to be made into snowballs, and dandelion seeds to be blown. All parents know that the most wonderful sound in the world is the laughter of their own children. How happy we are when we see and hear our children truly playing. God, our Father, must equally delight in it. Noted Catholic lecturer and author Peter Chojnowski, Ph.D., said that, “laughter is a signpost indicating the way to eternal bliss.” Perhaps we all should learn from the boys in the Valley — who are constantly beholding nature and laughing with each other — how to have our own sense of play as adults. Play in the natural world teaches us that the world is good and that He meant for us to take joy in it. Taking joy in the created world is different from the external gratification resulting from manufactured amusement. We learn from the original order of nature what is good, not merely what feels good.

While every child could use more of the Valley and less blacktops and jungle gyms, it is true that we at The Heights are truly blessed to have such a space. Most schools do not have woods in which to simply let their students play. Playgrounds are built sometimes because no nearby natural space exists. Schools and city planners often attempt to make the most of available land to give children a fun spot to play. It is also true that a few outlier park designers have recently begun to mimic nature in their playgrounds, making use of natural materials, connected structures, and spaces that encourage the imagination rather than take it over. Finally though, there is no replacement for the real thing. A jungle will always beat a jungle gym. Yet, even without direct, daily access to nature, there are ways to combat the couch-kid generation. Even in small spaces, natural play can happen. If we have only one tree, building a tree house with our children can be a wonderful gift. And outside our home, taking to the woods for family outings (and not always staying on the path) is a great way to give our children the gift of free, natural play. Too often today, hiking or exploring outdoors is considered an extraordinary trip, like visiting a museum, when really it should be the norm for our children. Most importantly, as a culture, we need to redefine our idea of play. Entertainment is passive, so let’s leave that to the rare visit to the amusement park or arcade. Let’s encourage our children to be active and imaginative in their play by providing them with simple and natural materials and spaces. And let’s be sure to give them the time for it. Then, like the boys of the Valley, our children will learn to recognize the beauty of reality, acquire good decision-making skills, sharpen their creative senses, and gain a deeper understanding of the world and its goodness. And they’ll get plenty of exercise while they’re at it.

A few years back, an elderly woman stopped into the Admissions Office and asked if she could take a tour. As I walked her around the campus, she smiled dreamily and remained silent. When we came to the Valley and she saw the boys playing with all their exuberance and sheer joy, she stopped mid-step, and her eyes grew watery. She then explained that she was not a prospective grandparent inspecting the School for her grandson, but that she had grown up on this land sixty years ago. Now through happy tears, she told me how pleased she was that our students were playing in the same woods with the same joy that she had experienced so long ago. I hope the boys playing in the Valley today will return to their former campus years and years from now, and feel that same joy within them. I am grateful to feel it every day. And though I’ll think back to my childhood days in my backyard forest with regret that I can’t give the same to my children at home, I’m completely happy. For, as I’ve told my wife many times, if we can’t give them a farm or a field or a forest to grow up next to, we can still give them The Heights.