The Powerful Magic of Play at Playtime on the Prairie

Children playing at playtime on the prairie -

When was the last time you played? I mean really played. The kind of playing that takes you back to a time and a place in your childhood where you felt that deep down joy in just being in your own little world. The freedom to explore, to create, to imagine, to dream, to just be… I would imagine for most of us it’s pretty hard to recall the last time you really took part in any kind of play.

What is your first memory of playing?

Shortly after accepting the position at Conner Prairie last spring as the Early Learning Program Coordinator, our Education staff was asked to introduce themselves and tell about their earliest play memory. Wow! As the conversations began to flow, it was as if a gentle, quiet stream started bubbling up and overflowing the banks! Each story and experience was incredibly unique and personal and overflowing with emotion – joy and laughter, love, a touch of bittersweetness and sentimental reminiscing. You could see in each face an emotional connection as they searched for the words to describe their earliest moments of play. It was as if they were being transported back in time to a sacred, magical place that stirred in them a powerful and moving emotion. In that moment, something inside of me began to stir.  Not long after listening to these conversations, I was led to try a little experiment of my own.

two children playing with balls at playtime on the prairie

One summer evening as several adults in my family gathered around a campfire, I ventured out and popped the play question, ”What is your first memory of playing when you were a child?” Once again, what followed was beautiful! I learned so many things, tidbits of family history and stories I had never heard from the older generation gathered there that evening. I saw smiles and joy and heard laughter all while watching meaningful conversations invoke a feeling of closeness not felt in quite that way before. I left that evening with a new passion for this my role at Conner Prairie. You see, these conversations with adults about how the power of play affected their lives ignited in me something that I’ve always known to be true, but have always felt as if I was going against the grain and practice in the educational settings I was a part of. Kids need to play — play IS how they learn everything they need to know! Play is enough!

The importance of play

My years in the education field, I’ve always been drawn to non-traditional educational settings. That’s where I’ve discovered I find the most deep down joy in teaching little ones — places where kids can be kids; a place where play is the norm and not the fifteen minute “recess;” a place where they can explore and be outdoors and notice nature; places where they are given choices and are trusted and allowed to take risks; places where getting messy is expected and celebrated (after all everyone and everything can be washed!).

What I’ve discovered since coming to Conner Prairie is that I have truly found that “place!”  Fortunately, we now have the science and research to back up the value and necessity of play in children’s lives. The social, emotional, cognitive and intellectual developmental benefits are truly astounding! All one needs to do is google “benefits of play” to open up a plethora of lists, articles, research and blogs on the topic and unveil the science behind the importance of play.

I have had the incredible opportunity these past months to learn so much more about the benefits and power of play from sitting under the remarkable leadership of our Education Director. Her passion and enthusiasm is contagious! She has given me the freedom to bring to life what I have always known to be true when it comes to children and their need to play. It’s like a new door of creative possibilities in education has opened up to me as I’ve listened to her share our education department’s philosophy along with the research that children need to be given the time, space and freedom to play and that play truly is magical. I’ve also been supported in my new role by our Preschool on the Prairie Director, and I’m always inspired as she leads children in outdoor nature play. She gives children opportunities to gain confidence, which in turn always leads to competence on a multitude of levels. Working with an incredible education staff who inspires me every day allows me to take my job to the next best place… a place where kids are the reason we do what we do. It’s the reason I believe Conner Prairie is the “place” and the “space” for children and adults to come and play together!       

What kids need to play

One of the main programs I’ve been asked to bring back to life this past summer since the pandemic hit is our Playtime on the Prairie. It’s held every Friday from April through September, children ages birth thru 5 years old. I’m beyond thrilled to be able to share my love for teaching in such a beautiful and non-traditional way. My job is to bring to life the magic of play through a concept called “provocations” or “invitations to play.” In my early years of teaching, there was a big push for hands-on learning activities or “stations” in which kids would be given a set amount of time at each station and then be moved on to the next without regard to whether or not the child was right in the middle of their big idea and executing it beautifully. It didn’t matter, they must move on to the next “station.”

Provocations bring hands-on learning to a whole new level with very intentional spaces designed and created with the idea that the child will be given an open invitation to play with no time restraints. A focus on the process over a finished product. It may be in the form of old materials displayed in a new way, a photo or book to spark inspiration, natural materials, loose parts or new and creative mediums all designed to allow exploration, wonder and creativity to flow. 

If a child wants to stay at one provocation for the entire hour, that IS OKAY! Allowing a child the time (they need), the space (to explore) and the freedom (to take reasonable risks) at whatever stage they are in, at that moment in time, is priceless! What I absolutely love the most about provocations is the conversations that are sparked with parents and caregivers. I am excited to share with them the thought process behind provocations and guide them in ways to bring this concept of play into their homes.

children at playtime on the prairie

Most of all, I love to encourage families to take a step back and let their child take the lead.

New adventures discovered through playtime

I love to watch them observe their child gain confidence and figure out how the world works as they discover things like cause and effect, when they touch a new medium for the first time or as they’re allowed to truly get “messy” such as squishing gooey mud through their fingers and then sliding their arms up to their elbows in it and giggling uncontrollably. This is their way of exploring new spaces. 

Provocations at Playtime on the Prairie are new and different each week and often are held in Featherston Barn or also lovingly referred to by the kids as the Big Red Barn. However, this summer I also had the privilege of scouting out new and different spots throughout the grounds. These pockets of shady public spaces often unknown to guests opened up new conversations and places for our families to explore and notice on their next visit. It inspired a few families to purchase a membership so that they could have unlimited access to this space their child was growing to love.

child at playtime on the prairie

I couldn’t have been more thrilled to watch the summer unfold as little ones and their families came to Conner Prairie’s treasure — over 1,000 acres of wooded property to explore nature through a variety of provocations designed just for them… They walked, ran, jumped, skipped, rolled and got their hands and knees muddy. We smelled the sunflowers and noticed the blossoms on the trees. They talked to the goats, stomped and crunched through leaves, wandered through the corn maze, listened to the birds sing and played and played and played… until their little hearts were content… and really isn’t that what playing is all about? 

Learn more about how you can give your child the ability to play, explore, inquire, and at their own pace at Playtime on the Prairie.

Back to the first question, “When was the last time you played?” My challenge to you as an adult… don’t miss out letting your heart feel content. Tap into the deep down joy and benefits that come from playing at literally any age. Just start with one small action. Take a walk outdoors and notice what you see, hear and smell. Then, with everything that is in you, stomp and crunch in those beautiful fall leaves until your heart’s content! Watch it spark a smile, release some stress and feel it bubble up inside of you to want to do more! You’ve tapped into the powerful magic of play!

About the Author

Susan Billing is the Early Learning Program Coordinator whose main focus since joining the education team this past March has been to dream and create magical spaces for Conner Prairie’s youngest guests to explore and learn through play as she brought back to life this past summer the Playtime on the Prairie program for ages birth thru 5 years of age.  She has an elementary education degree and has loved teaching children over the years in a variety of different settings.  However, her favorite setting by far is any place that does not have desks and chairs but does have grass or dirt under their little feet!  She is now looking forward to expanding the philosophy of play into future programming here at Conner Prairie.  

In her free time, she enjoys hanging out with her husband watching movies together, taking long walks, and traveling…especially to visit their kids in Colorado and Nebraska.  But, most recently her time has been consumed with the newest addition to their family, a mini Bernedoodle puppy named, Finn.