Perhaps one of the most misunderstood forms of play by society is the rest period between active play periods. Parents and teachers often misunderstand restful play and observation time as completion of the play period and force children back into cars, homes, and classrooms. As a father of three young children, I can relate to this and sometimes struggle with making a mental effort to pause and wait for just a moment to make sure that play has indeed reached an end. What adults perceive as an end to play is often a retreat from the sensory stimulation accumulated during the prior activity and a form of respite while a child self-regulates their emotions, body heat, and sensory intake. It is also often a time to take a step back and understand the environment from a cognitive and social perspective.
This past weekend, I observed a four-year-old child at his birthday party. After jumping and bouncing non-stop in a large bounce house with a large group of children, sweaty and red-faced, he quickly distanced himself from the group. Several adults watched as he sought out and found a spot away from the bouncing and flailing of other children. The spot he chose was small, enclosed and intimate. It provided a spot where he could rest from the active and social events nearby, but still allowed him the option to observe safely while resting. He was obviously still actively engaged as he observed, moving his eyes and head back and forth as other children ran around in circles. Then without warning he was up and running around as if he had never stopped. Unbeknownst to him, he had just found his own “cozy spot” where he was able to self-regulate his physical, cognitive, sensory, and social inputs.
The Importance of Cozy Spots
Imagine three adult scenarios. First, imagine you are involved in a full-court basketball game. You are sweaty and tired but fully engaged and enjoying yourself. Second, imagine you are in a large social atmosphere with a great deal of noise, talking, laughter, and people really enjoying themselves. Third, picture yourself on a mid-summer hike along a challenging high-altitude mountain trail, truly enjoying the scenery. Now, imagine how you would react if there were no time-outs allowed or benches and chairs to sit down on during that basketball game. What if, at the social event, there was standing room only, no windows, patios, or places to “get some fresh air” as the room temperature rose, the chatter turned to a dull roar, and the scents of perfumes and cologne mixed together. What if you forgot a hat as you walked along that hot dusty trail and there were no trees, shade, or respite from the glaring summer sun?
Unfortunately, many outdoor environments offer the same challenges for children at play, particularly children with disabilities. The theory of “prospect and refuge” (the innate ability to understand when to hide and observe and when engagement is beneficial) is consistent with children’s natural draw to cozy spots that are specifically designed for retreat and respite, where fewer stimuli are present and requirements for processing are reduced.¹ They afford children with an escape from stimulation and access to a small space with opportunities for comforting tactile pressure and solitary activities. In actuality, theses spaces are a retreat from the social, physical, and emotional stressors in the surrounding environment.² They also offer a perceived separation from the surrounding environment without necessarily being physically separated by distance. This allows for close observation and intellectual processing in preparation for future engagement in the environment, resulting in a better managed emotional state and reduced aggression among children.
In addition, “Being alone provides time essential for reflection and growth…Private spaces…support the development of the young child’s self-concept and personal identity. They assist all ages in understanding the ‘I’ in relation to the ‘Thou’.”³
How to Plan for Cozy Spaces
It should be noted that many times, if a cozy space is not provided and there are loose materials around (blankets, boxes, etc.), children will make their own cozy spaces. However, in public play settings where these loose materials are not available, providing cozy spaces is crucial. Cozy spaces can be as simple as a grouping of boulders in the landscape. or more defined, like the examples shown here, with pre-manufactured benches, cubbies, and tubes. A few of the most important concepts of cozy spots are to:
- Create small intimate spaces
- Locate in close proximity to areas of active play
- Locate in direct line of sight to care givers and play activities
- Provide close, “comforting” tactile pressure opportunities (back rest, foot rests, etc.)
- Locate in shaded areas
- Locate away from high traffic lanes
- Provide interesting textures/activities to be explored while in the spaces
- Provide a perceived sense of isolation and security that is still quite accessible
- Provide diversity in cozy spot locations, elevations, and sizes as observation styles and methods vary among children²
According to observations by Gary Moore, Ph.D., pre-school age children engaged in free play tend to play in groups of less than five and most commonly in groups of two or in solitary play. Whether referred to as “cozy spots,” “retreat and observation points,” “nooks and crannies,” or “child caves,” these spaces should be properly designed to accommodate these sized groups (suggested sizes of 36-60 s.f.).¹
I was recently informed by elementary school officials that children at their school, who during recess sat in groups or were not engaged in active play, were reprimanded and forced to engage in active play or alternatively forfeit their right to recess because recess was considered a time to “get their wiggles out.” This was a great opportunity to educate on the importance of different types of play and the role of cozy spots in that play. Hopefully the information in this article will be a helpful educational tool as we join and observe our children in the play environment. Let us not be quick to overlook the importance of the passive play experience.
- Gary T. Moore, “How Big is Too Big? How Small is Too Small?” (July 1996), Child Care Information Exchange, 21-24.
- Occupational Therapy Consulting, LLC, “Helping Kids Calm,” (June 6, 2012), accessed February 2014.
- Louis Torelli, “The Developmentally Designed Group Care Setting: A Supportive Environment for Infants, Toddler and Caregivers,” in The Zero to Three Child Care Anthology (Arlington: National Center for Clinical Infant Programs, 1992), 81-84.
by Chad Kennedy, ASLA, Landscape Architect