The power of free play

Today you’re hearing from Amanda Tomasello. This summer, she is interning in Rhode Island with us and our partners as part of the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership. A lot of her work includes working with local parks, schools and after school programs to connect young people in Providence to the great outdoors. Below, she shares with us just how powerful time in nature can truly be.

NPark Hill

Amanda Tomasello, an environmental studies student at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, is working in Providence, Rhode Island this summer helping youth in the city learn about and get involved with nature.

Recently, a collaboration of city groups hosted an event called Pop-up Play Day in Roger Williams Park.  The intention of Pop-up Play Day was to get local kids engaged in what we like to call “free play” out in a safe and natural environment. Free play is the concept of unstructured playing.  If you’re anything like me you’re probably thinking, isn’t all play free play? Well sadly, no.  In the midst of discussing the concept of free play with coworkers the other day we all somberly realized how much “play” has changed in just a generation.


April Alix, the conservation coordinator for the Providence Parks Urban Wildlife Refuge Partnership, teaching children about bugs at Pop-up Play Day in Providence.

When I was kid, play meant walking to the neighbors house to see if my friends were home and riding our bikes up and down the block to check on each other.  It meant sidewalk chalk on the driveway, hopping through sprinklers, and running barefoot after ice cream trucks at dusk.  Boredom was a rarity, usually reserved for the rainiest of summer days.  I should mention that I grew up in suburbia in a very different environment than some of the students I interact with on a daily basis. But even out where nature is abundant, the concept of play has greatly changed. Kids are rarely out in their backyards playing with sticks and mud in imagined environments and it is this kind of play that is again and again proven to be necessary for healthy development.


Kids make nature weave crafts with natural materials.

Pop-up Play Day was a great success. The weather was fantastic and the live music lifted the spirits of kids and parents alike. At the park, we had stations of activities that the kids were free to wander around to. There was everything from simple activities such as blowing bubbles and making fairy houses out of sticks and leaves, to identifying local bugs and making nature weaves out of natural materials (see image above!).  Children I came across had a huge smile on their face. It is my hope that they take this experience home with them and continue to free play their way into adulthood.  Being involved with this event solidified the importance of free play and time in nature during a child’s development for me.  Seeing the kids engage in something I always took for granted was rewarding and I feel honored to be a part of such an amazing network of talented and dedicated individuals who made this event possible.

To learn more about our work in Providence and other cities across the country, please visit our urban hub.

2 thoughts on “The power of free play

  1. Tim Binzen

    Great post. Biological anthropology tells us that genetically “modern” humans emerged tens of thousands of years ago. This means that a child born today is “hardwired” with the same innate behaviors and capabilities as a child born thousands of years in the past. Small children have an imperative for imaginative play. If they are outdoors and do not have access to I-Pads, electronic devices or even standard toys, they will create what they need – dolls, “fairy houses”, toy weaponry — out of the natural materials at hand (stones, sticks, ferns…)


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