8 Free Time for Free Play in University Learning Environments

Tommy Rodengen

EVSC 100: Introduction to Environmental Science

EVSC 205: Methods in Environmental Science

EVSC 491: Advanced Field Methods in Environmental Science

Introduction and Course Information

Creating time and space for play in the courses I teach has been an extremely inspirational journey for me. My journey began like many others – I followed a girl into the woods.

I worked as a naturalist at the local nature center when I was in high school. One day a pretty girl who sat in front of me in homeroom turned around and asked what I was doing for the summer. When I responded with just working at the nature center, she asked if I wanted to join her as the naturalist at a summer camp for kids.

At the age of 18 I became the naturalist of a summer camp on 2,500 acres of pristine northern Minnesota wilderness. With almost no training, I took cabin groups of youngsters into the woods and showed them the wonder of the pines and lakes of the northwoods. It was easiest job I have ever had. Instead of straining myself to develop curriculum I simply gauged what the children already knew in a fun little game, chose a topic (e.g., trees), and then went off into the woods with a few props (e.g., a tree ID key) in my backpack. The kid’s questions came naturally and without prompting. My initial answer to most of their questions was, “I don’t know, lets look it up together”. While I eventually learned the names of most things kids could point to the northwoods, I rarely identified them. I would rather the kids make the connection between the specimen and the surrounding place. The famous naturalist and photographer Les Blacklock, who visited the camp before my time, championed the model of teaching I used as a naturalist. This model can be summarized through a quote in Les’ notes to future camp naturalists. “Nature programming at camp should be fun, exciting, and educational in that order”.

For children, a place, especially the outdoors, reads as their own and they will automatically have an ethic instilled around that place. The problem with teaching undergraduates is that they have no ethic or endowment in a place simply by playing in it. This is where Les’ teaching philosophy falls short and the challenge of teaching undergraduates becomes apparent.

“We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we cannot be wise with other men’s wisdom.”   Michel de Montaigne

In Simon Fraser University (SFU)’s certificate program in undergraduate teaching and learning I was forced to meet this challenge of rectifying the play in Les’ model with the variety of Environmental Science courses I had and had yet to teach. By redrafting my teaching philosophy and delving into the scarce literature of adult play, I have developed a new model that fits the courses I have taught so far in my career.

The courses I have chosen to incorporate in this study are those I taught as a sessional instructor in the Environmental Science program SFU. Over the years 2009 to 2012 I taught three different courses in Environmental Science. Introduction to Environmental Science (EVSC 100) I taught three times at SFU’s satellite campus –Surrey. This course usually had 65 freshman to sophomore students who, in informal polling, chose to take the course because they either had a general interest in the environment, or, “wanted an easy mark”. This course met once a week for two hours in a large lecture format and covered introductory themes in environmental science, such as, earth systems and ecosystem theory. This course usually had one or two teaching assistants who meet with students one time a week in tutorial

I taught and developed Methods in Environmental Science (EVSC 205) only one time. This course was designed for sophomores or juniors who had never been in the field. The class had 65 students, all who were pursuing an Environmental Science major. The goal of the course was to explore how students learn to account for and incorporate community perspectives and in the planning process for ecological restoration. The community got involved by generating the research questions around ecological restoration projects on a creek system that had its headwaters at SFU. This course meet met once a week for four hours either in lecture or in the field. This course was taught with a single TA who assisted with tasks in the field and maintaining a safe working environment in the field.

I also taught and developed Advanced Field Methods in Environmental Science (EVSC 491). This course was created for seniors as a sort of capstone class. I taught this course two times, each with ~10 students. The class ran for two weeks straight at a remote field location. The goal was to show students the variety of opportunities available to Environmental Science majors, while teaching advanced field skills. This course was taught with no TA.

Background and Theory on Play

University adults without play:  A recent survey shows Canadian university students feel stressed, overwhelmed, lonely, and some have even considered suicide in the past year (Canadian Press, 2013). To balance the stresses of university life, students often fill their free time with a variety of structured extracurricular activities. While touted as needed stress relief, these extracurricular activities themselves can contribute to the stress of university life. I propose that an impromptu game of shoe-golf[1] in the quadrangle in between classes may be just the stress release that is needed for an exhausted university student. What’s more is that we can incorporate this “goofing-off” easily into our university environment.

Extracurricular activities such as singing in a rock band, joining the political science club, or playing on the hockey team are all categorized as structured play. Structured play refers to activities where an overseer has more input, either in initiating the play, controlling the resources available, intervening or participating during the course of play. The benefits of structured play such as soccer are well described in child development literature and as a means to balance work and other stresses of life in adults (e.g., Provost, 1990; Forencich, 2001).

The other type of play is known as unstructured or free play. Unstructured play is generally understood to be those play experiences where the player chooses a course of action for himself or herself, which involves minimal overseer intervention and has no clear or defined goals. Unstructured play affords more creative responses, new roles, activities, problem solving, and imagination and can manifest itself in activities like fantasy or spontaneous games amongst friends where rules are made up as the game is played. The merits of unstructured play are well documented in children; it helps children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become more resilient (e.g., American Academy of Pediatrics, 2006; Pellegrini and Smith, 1998). However, unlike its structural counterpart, unstructured play has no literature heralding these benefits in adults. In fact, adults have progressively reduced and replaced unstructured play with structured play in their children’s development (e.g., Pellegrini and Bohn, 2005; Hofferth, 1999; Clements, 2004). The conditioning of filling free time with highly structured play is meant to prepare children for the highly competitive adult world of today. University students are well conditioned to the stressors present in childhood. These childhood stressors are in the guise of parents, bosses, coaches, and mentors. In university, students usually bestow the same conditioning from their childhood to a new potential stressor: free time (The Peak, 2014).

University adults with play:  Certain environments encourage opportunities that can lead to unstructured play and the benefits thereof. These environments are often identified as places where the “knowledge workers” rely on “tacit interactions”. Knowledge workers are people who think for a living. In particular, a large number of knowledge workers use tacit interactions, or, interactions that depend heavily on judgment and context. On this basis, university students can best be associated with knowledge workers in the labor force today (Aronowitz, 2001).

Since knowledge workers have been identified, the biggest challenge for employers has been how to increase productivity in their tacit interactions. The previous model of getting the most from knowledge works that used tacit interactions resembled a pyramid, where a handful of tacit workers (i.e., managers) at the top coordinated many workers engaged in transformations and transactions at the bottom. The technological investment of the 1990’s automated and streamlined some tacit interactions, but could not help those at the top. Today, technological investment is seen in a supportive role, helping to bring up information that is required to make every transaction efficient. Because tacit interactions depend on complex mixtures of judgment, problem solving, and information exchanges, some companies have focused on creating favorable conditions for their knowledge works to increase productivity. One such company that has successfully created these conditions is Google.

Google has a set of corporate principles that places their workers in a mindset open to creative responses, new roles, activities and imagination. These principles include, “you can make money without doing evil”, “you can be serious without a suit”, and “work should be challenging and the challenge should be fun” (Google, 2011). A novel motivation technique at the heart of the increased productivity for Google called Innovation Time Off where Google employees are encouraged to spend 20 percent of their work time on projects that interest them. The independent endeavors of Innovation Time Off are responsible for Google’s newer services of Gmail, Google News, Orkut and AdSense (The Google way: Give engineers room”, 2007)[2]. While, not termed “unstructured play”, Innovation Time Off fosters all identifiable markers of unstructured play for adults – experiences where the player (employee) chooses for him or herself, which involve minimal overseer intervention and have no clear or defined goals.

Playgrounds, by definition, present an environment laudable to the needs of unstructured play. While playgrounds are available to children within walking distance of most urban areas, adults have no such convenience. This isn’t to say it hasn’t been tried. A 1971 installation at the Tate Modern in London, England entitled “Bodyspacemotionthings” invited adults to “clamber up, slide down, balance on and weave through large sculptural elements”. Oddly, the original installation prompted a fascinating response from the public and abruptly closed four days after opening, because, “Tate staff were not able to cope with the frantic means of emotional release that the exhibit became” (KaBOOM!, 2009). Similar elements found in the Tate Modern exhibit have been incorporated into open spaces at companies to foster unstructured play. In summary, unstructured play in the workspace is best promoted by creating an environment that invites play and then gets out of the way.

My Case: Integrating unstructured play in the structured University environment

Research in the field of evolutionary psychology suggests that humans are genetically programmed by evolution with an affinity for the outdoors. Termed biophilia (Wilson, 1984), it forms the genetic basis for human’s positive response to nature, including reduced stress and a general feeing of well-being. Early life experience with nature has been linked to advanced recollection of information, creative problem solving, imagination and a sense of wonder (Cobb, 1977). Wonder, as described by Cobb (1977), is not an abstract term or a lofty ideal. Instead, it is a phenomenon rooted in the child’s developing perceptual capabilities and his or her ways of knowing. This way of knowing, if recognized and honored, can serve as a life-long source of joy and enrichment, as well as an impetus, or motivation, for further learning (Carson, 1956). A rekindled sense of wonder is the benefit of outdoor learning that I wish to develop in university students using unstructured play.

Unlike unstructured play in the workspace, unstructured play in the outdoors for the purposes of university education needs more than just a well-designed space to be created. Indeed, the space has already been created in our quadrangles, parks and wildlands. Unstructured play in the outdoors for university students needs to have an instilled environmental ethic. To children, the outdoors reads as their own, a place separate from adults that responds to a child’s own sense of place and time. To create a similar “endowment effect[3]” in university students, critical education for the environment is needed to instill in students a deeply held and enduring environmental value set.

Exploring the forest
Figure 1: Exploring the forest

After an environmental ethic has been instilled, providing the opportunity for unstructured play needs to be created. One potential way of creating this opportunity is to borrow a page from Google’s book and institute a 20 percent time off for the university students to pursue their own whims in the outdoors[4]. In structuring Environmental Science 205, I made every effort to maximize time in the field without a particular learning goal or direction. For instance, in Environmental Science 205 I would usually only plan three of the four hours of classes held in the field, leaving the fourth hour available for unstructured play. I would welcome students to “hang-out” in the field site for this last hour although class was officially dismissed.

What I found was that about half the class took me up on this opportunity and they did so usually not by engaging the TA or myself directly, but instead pushed the boundaries of the field site by simply exploring (Figure 1). All students were required to checkout before leaving the site with TA or myself, but besides that two-minute interaction, the TA and myself found only each other to interact with and consequently would do the same thing the students were doing, exploring the boundaries of the field site (Figure 2). It was usually in the next class that students, unprompted, brought out questions they had about the local environment from their previous day’s exploration. These questions are what usually led the students to choosing their topic for their final project. This gives me great hope for the next generation of environmental scientists in knowing that their natural affinity for the outdoors can be easily rekindled if simply given the opportunity.

Figure 2: Exploring the boundaries
Figure 2: Exploring the boundaries

Another inspiring achievement, as a direct fallout from this 25% time off in the field, was what happened to the students who chose to leave. Since I structured the final project of EVSC 205 in small groups requiring a field component, the students who left were encouraged by their fellow students to stay after and explore. By the last field class, every student was utilizing the 25% free time to interact with other students, asking each other questions and really playing in the field. It reminded me a lot of recess for adults.

A second way of creating these opportunities would be to lengthen natural breaks in the outdoor setting. These breaks could take the form of longer lunches or longer rest breaks. If given these longer breaks in the outdoors frequently, I believe the students are given a ripe opportunity that satisfies all the markers of unstructured play. While the second way of providing an unstructured play opportunity might seem underhanded, I think it provides a new way of introducing play in the university curriculum. In Environmental Science 491 we would break for lunch for an hour, to breakup the 8 hour long day. It was after lunch that I found it hard to get back to the schedule as the class and I usually found ourselves splashing in the nearby creek, talking to neighbors about the current state of the creek, and generally “goofing-off” around the field site (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Goofing off
Figure 3: Goofing off

The fallout from this unstructured free play directly influences students connection to the field site and future motivation to solve problems related to that site and beyond. For one Environmental Science 491 student, “the ability to do whatever we wanted during downtime out in nature was actually what made me realize what I really wanted to do in life after University …[work in] environmental science” (Course Evaluations, 2011).

A third way to provide unstructured play is to create a playground and get out of the way. To do this for EVSC 100, I started playing the game “Predator-Prey” at a nearby park. The game “Predator-Prey” actually has a defined set of rules. To turn this structured game into unstructured play, I only oversaw the first round, subsequent rounds where self-officiated and only had the structure of a boundary in which to play in (Figure 4). In short, the class of 65 was split into three groups. One group was the mice, one the weasels, one the wolves. The wolves eat the weasels, the weasels eat the mice, and the mice eat food that is hidden in the park somewhere. To survive, you will have needed to eat during a round. The original round teaches the basics of the ecological food chain concept. Subsequent rounds, teach dynamics of community ecology and importance of place.

Figure 4: The play site
Figure 4: The play site

The game was done during class time and everyone was asked to participate. After the first round their name was recorded and they were free to leave with full participation marks for the day. What I found was in all three times I taught the course, more than half of the class stayed after the first round, and a smaller portion stayed well after class to self-officiated round after round. I witnessed rounds of different initial group numbers, groups starting at different times in different areas of the park, new groups being formed (e.g., a group of hunters that could hunt the wolves), and within group dynamics that were nothing short of impressive. I even witnessed a group of wolves “eat” a weasel with a flanking maneuver that General Patton would approve of. At the beginning of the next class in lecture I usually did nothing by analyze student-recorded game statistics and group dynamics.

The three classes I taught in Environmental Science are at different levels of undergraduate education, but I managed to work in unstructured play into all of them. For EVSC 100, that involved manipulating the space for play to flourish like in the “Bodyspacemotionthings” exhibit. For EVSC 205, that involved building-in an hour of play like Google’s “20% time off”. For EVC 491, that involved being flexible with time in the field and the ability to recognize an opportunity to play. The timing of when to incorporate play depends a lot on the level of study. Something I hope I can illustrate with my new model of teaching.

Play ⇔ Teach ⇔ Research (PTR) Model

The PTR model involves three components. The play component represents unstructured play, which we have already covered at length. The teach component represents the connection between science and place. The teach component is the aforementioned ethic that needs to be instilled by doing more than playing in a place. It needs to go beyond just teaching the science of a place as well. This is usually the most challenging and most rewarding component. The teach component is the dynamic piece of the model that connects play and fun with a specific place. That place, if you hit your mark, is where your students can hopefully connect with and if passion emerges, do research on.

To illustrate the PTR model consider an archer with a bow and arrow shooting at a target some distance away (Figure 5). The archer is the student. Play is the bow. Teach is the arrow. Research is the target.

Figure 5: pt
Figure 5: PTR

In this analogy, the play is merely a tool to shoot the arrow. It does not matter if the archer grabs the arrow or the bow first, merely, that the arrow fits the bow. Nor does it matter how or what the bow is made of. It only matters that they fit together and that the arrow is true. Lastly, the target can be far away or close. It depends on if your archers are all shooting for the same target on the same landscape, or different targets on the same landscape, or different targets on different landscapes. By analogy, it does not matter if play, teach, or research is done first. It is important that play and teach fit together and that the teach component has some sort of ethic or trajectory. Research can be done as an individual or overall teaching goal. To clarify, let me provide some course-specific examples.

Each course requires a re-tooling of the PTR model. For instance, in a 100-level natural resource management course, I would take extra strides to develop an environmental ethic that can endure throughout their coursework and research. This would put the teach component in front of the play in the PTR model. For a 200-level organic chemistry course I would be ensuring that play and teach are done simultaneously in the field by offering problem-based experiences to challenge student’s environmental ethics. For a 300 or 400 level ecology course I would start by explaining the climatological context of the course (teach), immediately get out in the field (play), and then allow students to choose their own analysis to conduct their final project on (research). The PTR model can even be as flexible to cope with inclement weather and increase field trip preparation for a graduate level course. For an advanced ecology or geology course a place-based research project would be selected from a descriptive list and the students would conduct a literature search, identify a research question, and prepare a technical report or abstract for a poster (research). Students then present their poster or report (teach). Finally, the research project culminates by going out to the field to collect more data or samples for next years group, and suggest questions that future students might work on (play).

Ultimately, the PTR model provides a way to rectify play with teaching while advancing research. The PTR models creates an environment for play whether it be spatial like in a 100-level game at a park, or temporal like devoting the last hour in a 200-level field class work to play. The important thing to note is the necessity to re-tool the PTR model to the appropriate level of study and to what learning outcomes you wish to achieve.

In my case, success can be measured in providing students the confidence in knowing what they want to do after my class, or level of participation, or the number of questions following a class with a heavy play component. Play can become part of any level course. Subjecting a class outline to the PTR model can help ensure that play is part of your course too.


TommyRodengenThomas “Tommy” Rodengen, PhD Candidate, Resource and Environmental Management and Environmental Science




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Canadian Press (2013) Canadian students feel stress, anxiety, have suicidal thoughts, study reveals. Retrieved March 3rd, 2014.

Carson, R. (1956) The sense of wonder, Harper & Row, New York.

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Quartz (2013) Google engineers insist 20% time is not dead –it’s just turned into 120% time, Retrieved March 23rd, 2014.

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The Peak (2014) University student just not that stressed out, Retrieved March 22nd, 2014.

Wilson, E. (1984) Biophillia, Harvard University Press, Harvard, MA.


[1] Shoe golf is a game my friends and I made up when crossing the university quadrangle where you attempt to hit an agreed upon object with your shoe by flinging it off your foot the least amount of times.

[2] It should be noted that Google’s “Innovation Time Off” or “20% time” has been under scrutiny and may be more accurately termed, “120% time” (Quartz, 2013).

[3] The endowment effect is a hypothesis that people value a good or service more once their property right to it has been established.

[4] This is assuming that the curriculum in question already has some sort of outdoor component.


Experiential Learning Casebook Copyright © 2014 by Tommy Rodengen. All Rights Reserved.


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