Episode 35: The Importance of Children’s Play with Kim Squires

This week we welcome Kim Squires to the podcast! Kim is a PhD Candidate and the pedagogical leader at the Child Care and Learning Centre at the University of Guelph. In this episode Kim shares her expertise about the importance of children’s play and why play is important to children’s learning in their early years. Tune in for learn more about how to encourage outdoor play, the concept of “loose parts”, and how children can learn while playing.


Episode Transcript:

Lisa Tang  0:05 

Hello, and welcome to The Healthy Habits Happy Homes podcast hosted by the Guelph Family Health Study.

Sabrina Douglas  0:11 

If you’re interested in the most recent research and helpful tips for a healthy, balanced living for you and your family, then this podcast is for you. In each episode will bring you topics that are important to your growing family and guests who will share their expertise and experience with you.

Lisa Tang  0:27 

Our quick tips will help your family build healthy habits for a happy home.

Hello, and welcome back to The Healthy Habits, Happy homes podcast. I’m Lisa Tang.

Sabrina Douglas  0:43 

And I’m Sabrina Douglas. And this week on the podcast we’re excited to welcome Kim Squires. Kim is the pedagogical leader at the Child Care and Learning Centre or CCLC, and a PhD student at the University of Guelph. And she’s here to talk to us today about the importance of children’s play and why play is important to children’s learning in their early years. Welcome, Kim.

Kim Squires  1:04 

Hi, thanks for having me.

Sabrina Douglas  1:05 

So to start off, can you tell us a bit about your research interests and your PhD research is focused on?

Kim Squires  1:12 

Sure. So, I’m currently a PhD candidate in the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph. And my research is focused on early learning, in particular, that’s my main research focus. So, young children and their learning experiences, and specifically I’m focusing on the impact of children’s experiences with more naturalized environments, and how that might impact their development and learning. So, specifically, we’re looking at the differences in children’s cognitive and social play behaviours as well as activity levels and movement patterns on a traditional playground, as opposed to a naturalized playground.

Sabrina Douglas  1:51 

Interesting. Can you explain what a naturalized playground is?

Kim Squires  1:55 

For sure. So, the traditional playground that you might see has more slides and monkey bars, and they call it a kit, fence and carpet playground sometimes, where you might have the general kit that a jungle gym or playground is created out of, and then the carpeting and the rubber surface. And, then a naturalist playground — there’s no actual definition for, like, I guess, one definition for naturalist playground. But, generally, it’s a playground that’s more focused on natural elements and includes a variety of natural elements within it. So, thinking about more connection to gardens and having larger gardens within it. Rather then, kind of, a large jungle gym, you might see more fallen tree structures or structures created out of various logs. So, for instance, at the naturalist playground at the Child Care Learning Centre we have a large log jam structure that’s on our preschool playground — much more, kind of, focused on larger sandboxes, more grassy open areas, and, thinking about maybe some water elements to get in that connection to nature, as well. So, really thinking about how you can have those multiple connections to various natural elements. But, there’s not really one kind of specific definition, I guess,

Lisa Tang  3:11 

That’s really great, and super-interesting. I know that there is kind of a playground near us with some naturalized elements in it. And, my kids just absolutely love it. And I kind of feel like, well, they love any playground, if I’m being totally honest, but they really like some of those naturalized elements in it. And I think that it kind of makes them feel like they’re playing in nature a little bit more, which is kind of fun. So, my question for you, I guess, is, really, what motivated or inspired you to pursue this area of research?

Kim Squires  3:40 

So, I guess the start of it was when I was completing my Bachelor of Education, I discovered a passion for helping children strengthen their relationship with nature, and really begin to understand what some of those benefits are — bringing children into nature more and really, helping them connect even further with nature. And, so, I knew that this was the beginning of a passion of mine. And, I carry this into my work in the field as an educator, and, also as a teacher. And then I knew that when I was starting my PhD, I wanted to be researching something that I was really passionate about and something that I really could, kind of, dig into deeper, and something that would really, I felt, benefit the world, and also my own perspective as an educator. Focusing on nature and natural play seemed to fit that criteria pretty well for me. Research about outdoor play and children’s connections with nature has proven that there are definitely health benefits and developmental benefits in a variety of ways. So, I wanted to really add to this growing body of research. At the time that I was first initially thinking about this, it was even  less common, perhaps to have some more of this research occurring. In the last few years, it’s gotten a little bit more common. But, we can see from the research that there’s definitely benefits in terms of activity levels and an increase physical activity for children when they spend more time outdoors, which of course has associated health benefits with it. But, then also, there’s been proven kind of benefits in terms of mood and stress reduction. Social skills have been proven to be shown to be improved from spending more time outside, attention spans, all sorts of kind of developmental benefits have been associated with it. And, also thinking specifically about naturalized areas as opposed to wild natural areas. Not every child necessarily has access to a forest in their backyard or forests close by. So, thinking about, kind of, the benefits not just of wild natural areas, but also perhaps more maintained or constructed naturalized areas, and thinking if those areas still have similar benefits to  create more equitable access to nature for all children. Specifically, the research project that I’m working on is based out of the Child Care and Learning Centre. So, because I work there, I was really fortunate to know that this playground construction project was occurring, and felt like it could be a really interesting research study. And, so, luckily, my advisor agreed with me, and we were able to move forward with creating a research study based on the transition from the Child Care and Learning Centre as a more traditional playground to more naturalistic.

Lisa Tang  6:23 

Kim, that’s so interesting. And thank you for sharing all of that with us. I want to circle back to both the naturalized playgrounds.  I once went— I have a question for you, actually. I once went to this conference and they were talking about– the speaker was speaking about the safety differences between a naturalized playground, and your traditional playground, with a naturalized playgrounds being a little bit safer. Can you speak to that?

Kim Squires  6:47 

Yeah, for sure, definitely. The research seems to suggest that because with a traditional playground, children can get up to perhaps more artificially high heights, through the use of ladders and stairs and things like that. They are actually potentially at a greater risk, or there are potentially more safety concerns because of some of those aspects. Versus, with a naturalized playground, or even, for instance, climbing a tree in a forest, you can only get up as high as your body is actually allowing you to get up. Or as much as your body is ready to get up into that tree or into that, onto that fallen tree or log jam within a naturalized playground. It does seem to suggest that being in those natural spaces, you’re really only engaging in a risk level that is… that your body is ready for. Which does seem to suggest that there are less safety concerns for sure.

Sabrina Douglas  7:40 

Interesting. And, you mentioned that your PhD research is focusing on the transition to a naturalized playground at the CCLC. Can you explain the aim of this project and maybe how it’s going so far?

Kim Squires  7:52 

For sure. So, we started this transition, probably about three or four years ago, technically…probably before that, just in terms of thoughts and kind of planning out how we were going to do it. But, I think we started to see some real traction with it probably about four years ago. The playground that we have at the CCLC, or had at the CCLC, I should say, was an absolutely beautiful space. And it was a really beautiful playground in it’s time, for sure. We were so fortunate to have so many large outdoor spaces for the children to engage in. But, because of the age of it, it had definitely seen better times. And, we found that with our annual playground inspections, we were getting more and more things coming up that needed to be fixed with the structures. And that’s just a matter of it being, you know, an older playground by that time. A lot has happened in early learning over the last 30 years. And, we knew that if we were going to be replacing the playground, we wanted to go with something that would be more fitting with the direction of the field, and also with our own pedagogical approach and philosophy at the Child Care and Learning Centre. And, so we knew that that meant that we wanted to move to a more naturalized playground versus putting in another traditional playground. And, so we started the process of that in creating plans. And it was obviously a very large and long process, as everything kind of is with larger projects like that. But, we were really fortunate to be able to work with a wonderful company, or a design firm, as well as a construction firm. And, they created an absolutely amazing outdoor learning environment for our classrooms at the CCLC. And they’ve created multiple different kind of sections, where the children can engage in a variety of different experiences. And, it’s all really focused on connecting children with a variety of aspects of nature. So, we have huge gardens that take up a lot of the space and the children are able to engage with. We have log jams and or log jam on the preschool side, and a fallen tree in the toddler side. We have some built in slides, which I would say are probably one of the few, I guess, more traditional playground elements that you might see. But, they’re kind of built into a rolling hill so they don’t stand out maybe quite as much and still provide a fantastic experience for the children. We have large grassy areas. We have large sandboxes. We have two water features, as well as some other…we increased the amount of trees that we had, even though we’re already fortunate to have lots of trees. And, that was one of the main things that we said with the project. They basically took it down–well, they did take it down to the dirt. But we said, “You have to protect all of the trees,” because they were such a huge asset to the site. And so, that was kind of a larger process that we went through a couple of years ago now. And, we’ve been really enjoying our naturalized playground since then. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to enjoy it actually all of last spring or summer, due to the pandemic and needing to close down for that. So, this is actually the first spring that we’re seeing on the playground. And, it’s been so wonderful to be able to see all the gardens coming up and see the children’s connections with them, and seeing how they’re able to take all these different experiences and make use of the playground in the ways that they find significant.

Sabrina Douglas  11:10 

That sounds wonderful. It sounds like your PhD research is highly relevant to your role at the CCLC and vice versa. And there’s many like overlapping components. Can you talk about, more specifically what your role is as a pedagogical leader at the Child Care and Learning Centre?

Kim Squires  11:29 

Yeah, for sure. So, my role is actually a partnership between the Department of Family Relations and Applied Nutrition at the University of Guelph and the Child Care and Learning Centre. And, so half of my role, I am the instructor for the Child Practicum third year course that we host at the Child Care and Learning Centre. So, I’m the instructor of that, and I teach it the fall and in the winter. And then, the other half of my role is leading the pedagogical direction of the CCLC. And hoping, or helping, to ensure that we are an innovative early learning setting. And so, within that, I support the pedagogical approach… furthering that, and then, also furthering the professional development and learning of all of our educators.

Lisa Tang  12:13 

Thanks so much, Kim. Now, I have another question for you. So, sometimes it’s hard as a parent — I love it when my kids play, I think it’s great, I also get a break — but I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit more about the importance of play… specific to children’s learning?

Kim Squires  12:14 

Yeah, so play is absolutely critical to children’s learning. And, by definition, playing should be something that’s really chosen and self-directed. But children are really, I would say, scientists with the many different theories and curiosities that they have, and that they want to test out. And so, through play, they’re able to kind of test out all of those ideas and wonderings that they have and learn from them, and learn how things work and test out different ideas that they have, in a situation that’s a little bit safer for them to perhaps make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. For example, they can learn also cognitive skills, but also all sorts of social skills through playing with different play partners. Really learning how to enter play scenarios, negotiate with play partners, share their ideas, and work together alongside each other within those play interactions. And, I would say one thing that’s really critical about play, and is perhaps something that’s not always able to happen, or maybe prioritized, is really giving large chunks of time for children to play, so that they can really engage in that play in meaningful ways and really kind of dig deep into it.

Sabrina Douglas  13:46 

As an adult who no longer plays to learn, I understand cognitively that play is important for children’s learning. But, sometimes it can be hard to see how this is happening. So, I’m wondering if you can think of examples, in your own experience, of ways that you’ve seen children learn through play?

Kim Squires  14:04 

Yeah, so I think that one example that probably most people could relate to is children playing with blocks. And they might do that in a classroom, but a lot of children also have blocks at home. And so if I think about a child playing with blocks, I think that there are so many different developmental and learning benefits that can come from that, and how we can see children are actually learning while they’re engaging with those blocks. So, thinking about physical development, and how they might be developing more hand-eye coordination or human relation skills… thinking about  social-emotional development and how they might be developing more feelings of self competence and self-confidence, autonomy, perhaps cooperation, if they’re working with others, as I mentioned before, and perhaps even respect for others ideas, if they’re working alongside others and having to negotiate different ideas within the play experience. I think, in terms of thinking more about kind of curricular subjects, we can think about assignments and how they might be learning about stability and gravity, or, you know, weight and balance, or even trial and error. Thinking about math and how they might be connecting with some perhaps measurement concepts, probably particularly non-standard measurement concepts… counting, perhaps some symmetry in there or classification of patterning. And then, I think, finally, thinking about, perhaps like, language development, and how they might be exchanging different ideas during play scenarios… questioning each other, naming different concepts or telling different stories about their structures… blocks are particularly fantastic for that, because they can be used in so many different ways. And, the way that they’re used is not necessarily structured by the purpose of them. They don’t necessarily have a set-purpose. So, children really have to do a lot more explaining, perhaps, about what they’re building and really  use their language skills more than perhaps if they were using kind of more of a closed-ended material. So, in early learning, for instance, we try to focus on using many more open-ended materials that don’t necessarily have a set-purpose, or reason for their use. And, one thing I was thinking too about… because we’re talking a little bit more about outdoor play, and some of the risks associated with that… risky play is another concept in Early Learning that we talked about a lot, and we focus on a lot, and something that was perhaps sometimes a little bit more controversial, because we don’t often think about how we want to encourage children to engage with risk, but, giving them opportunities to manage different risks… for instance, climbing trees… is actually really beneficial for their development and learning, as well. And, it gives them an opportunity to build resiliency skills, problem-solving skills, and learn how to negotiate risks in perhaps a safer environment, so that later on, they are able to engage in risk, and negotiate risk a little bit more competently, as well. And also with that, of course, learning more about self-confidence, and self-esteem, and persistence, and, of course, gross motor, if they’re actually climbing a tree.

Lisa Tang  17:13 

Thanks, Kim. I’m wondering what… as you talk about these different ways of learning… I’m wondering if there are any specific frameworks or theories that inform your teaching approach?

Kim Squires  17:25 

Yeah, so, I think, within learning, we think a lot about constructivism, and how knowledge is constructed by individuals rather than passively absorbed. So, just telling a child something doesn’t perhaps mean as much to them as if they were to actually  test it out themselves.  And, also, within that kind of social constructivism of thinking about how essential interactions with others can be within learning. And then, specifically, within early learning, we talk a lot about emergent curriculum, which most people can probably relate to some concept of inquiry-based learning or experiential learning, if you think about older adults, usually. And so, those concepts are quite similar to emergent curriculum and that we can focus on children’s interests and where they are, and really connect with that within our curriculum and supporting their learning and development through that. And then, another, I guess, approach or framework perhaps, that’s really beneficial and important in early learning, is the amazing work that’s being done in Italy, with the Reggio Emilia approach. And, it is an educational project, a project that was created by educators in Reggio, Italy, that really focuses on children’s learning, and how we can connect with children in  a variety of different ways and give them many different experiences in order to really support their learning, and really see them as valuable contributors within the Early Learning experience.

Sabrina Douglas  19:01 

Thanks for sharing that. It’s interesting to learn how these all these different, like teaching strategies are informed by like evidence-based practice. I’m curious about your thoughts on pandemic Parents and Pandemic kids. And, wondering if you have any learning strategies or tips that you would recommend to parents who are having to lead their children through virtual learning at home?

Kim Squires  19:22 

I can imagine the challenges that are associated with this, for sure, and I know it hasn’t been easy, by any means. So, I guess a few things I would perhaps suggest are really thinking about creating a fairly predictable routine as much as possible in the schedule so that children know roughly what to expect each day, and know what the flow of the day is going to be for them. And, I would also recommend taking breaks and long breaks when possible, and taking those outside, ideally, as much as possible, in whatever outdoor space is accessible to you. Personally, I would prefer, or I would suggest a forested area, if possible, because I think that, that can support a lot of additional learning, but also give a great break. But, I know that that’s not accessible to everyone. So, I would just suggest whatever space is accessible to you, because any outdoor space can definitely be made… or children can definitely make connections with it, and can have that break that they need. And, as I mentioned before, there’s also so many developmental benefits to outdoor play. So, though it may feel like, you know, it’s hard to prioritize at times, it is really beneficial for children, and I think, also for the adults that are with them.  So that would be something that I would suggest… perhaps to maybe take a little bit of the pressure off, if possible, really recognizing that learning can occur in everyday, or even kind of less-academic situations very easily. So for instance, you know, creating a new recipe together can be a fantastic learning experience. And, children can get a lot from that, and also can get a lot of relationship-strengthening experiences from that, as well.

Lisa Tang  21:02 

Thanks. I love the recipe idea, for sure. That’s right up my alley as a dietitian, absolutely. I’m wondering, as you were talking about taking an opportunity to go outside in whatever space is accessible, I’m wondering if you could give us some very specific, perhaps, simple ways to encourage learning through play at home? And, I ask that, because I’ve done research myself as my kids were growing up, and I remember a lot of things ended up being a huge mess in my kitchen. So, I wouldn’t do it. Like, I think I’ve mentioned this on other podcasts, it was this one example where it’s like, give your kids a bucket of flour, and some spoons and measuring cups and let them play on your kitchen floor while you’re eating. And, I thought that is a hard pass. I’m not doing that! That sounds like a disaster and the exact thing I’d like to avoid. So, it’s really hard sometimes to find these simple, specific ways we can encourage play at home that doesn’t cause… or in my case, I’m very, very much afraid… of causing a huge mess. But, I like the idea of taking the bucket of flour outside, perhaps, now that you’ve talked about being outside. But, could you give us some of those specific examples that perhaps parents could even start with today as they listen to this podcast?

Kim Squires  22:19 

Yeah, for sure. So, not surprisingly, probably my first tip would be just spend more time outside. And, perhaps, like you said, take some of those messier experiences outside, like paint, for instance, if you’re not as comfortable having that in your home, but also have tried to embrace the mess if you can. But, I know that that is challenging and perhaps maybe there can be kind of a particular spot for some of that messier play because it is also really beneficial for children. But, also outside has so many play opportunities to offer. Like I said, particularly if we can be in more wild, natural areas, the play opportunities are absolutely endless. And, children really don’t need anything added to those areas necessarily to engage with. Because, nature just has so much to offer. But in terms of outside or even thinking, or sorry, inside or even thinking outside, I would say really providing open-ended materials as much as possible, would be my first suggestion for really encouraging play at home. And so, a concept that we talked about earlier learning is loose parts. And these are basically kind of like blocks, open-ended materials that don’t necessarily have a set or design purpose to them, but children can use them in a variety of different ways, and can make use of them, you know, for all sorts of different kinds of play activities and ideas that they might have. So, thinking about how, perhaps, you can create small collections of loose parts for your children to use at home. So, blocks can actually be an example of loose parts, because like I said, they don’t necessarily have a set purpose. But, even cardboard can be a great loose part that you probably have at home. Pots and pans can be one, but those tend to be quite loud. Bottle caps can be another one, or corks or wooden tree cookies, another one that we often use, or old bracelets that you might have like bangles and things like that can be great loose parts. String beads, so you can think about these that some people might put on like a Christmas tree, for instance, and cutting those up into various lengths. Those can be another great… loose part that are pretty easy to find around home. But, if you look around your home and look for a variety of different materials that you think, “Okay, is there a set-purpose for this or for the child use it in multiple different ways?” It’s like the things that you can source just from your home, and just give children opportunities to engage with and experience these different materials and see what they might do. And, they’ll likely surprise you. And, also giving time for that, and large chunks of time, if possible.

Lisa Tang  24:42 

That’s so great. And I really like the idea of loose parts. And, I think, now that I’m reflecting on what my children do, I actually think they kind of —I haven’t actually, I didn’t know that term, so that’s really helpful — but when I think back, I think my kids go into my junk drawer in my kitchen and they pull out all kinds of stuff from there that I didn’t even know I had. And, it’s probably… because it’s the drawer I  just shove stuff in, they get it off the counter… and they’ve pulled out like they’ve done a lot of stuff with like, corks, a roll of tape, and like, some scrap paper that I just, I didn’t know what it was, so I threw it in that drawer. So, I guess that’s kind of playing, that’s, I guess, a similar idea of playing with loose parts, or like a broken necklace. I think there was a broken kind of beaded cheap dollar store necklace in there that I think they pulled it, did whatever with, and I don’t care because it’s my junk drawer. But, I guess that’s the same idea as loose parts.

Kim Squires  25:33 

Yeah, for sure. Children will make use of all sorts of materials, really whatever you give them they can use in such imaginative ways.

Sabrina Douglas  25:40 

Super. Yeah, I recall the best part about parents buying a new appliance as a child was getting to play in the cardboard box. So, I love that. Amazing. So Kim, before we end the podcast, we usually ask our guests for three, take-home tips for parents. So, do you have three tips for parents when thinking about the importance of play for children’s learning?

Kim Squires  26:00 

So, I think my first tip would just be to remember that children are really capable and have a lot of different ideas and their own perspective to offer. And, I think society doesn’t necessarily always give them credit for that. But, if we can view children with that, then hopefully that can help to impact our relationships in a really positive way with them. And then, I would also suggest letting your child try new experiences and how that can be really beneficial for their learning and development, even if it might make you or them, perhaps, a little bit initially uncomfortable. And then, my third tip would be, know that life can get extremely busy, and there are so many other priorities, but, spending time together is key for both you and your child. So, thinking about ways that you can have fun together and play together and have different experiences together, could be really beneficial.

Sabrina Douglas  26:54 

Amazing. Thanks so much, Kim. Thanks for coming on the podcast. I’m sure our listeners will really appreciate your insight and tips on how to help their kids engage in more play at home during the Pandemic, especially.

Kim Squires  27:07 

Thanks so much for having me. It was a real pleasure to be able to talk with you and Lisa today.