What are your earliest and most powerful play memories? Mine are outside playing with other children. If there were adults there at all, they were on the periphery.
Many sleep overs with Debbie and Melody on their farm. We would play ‘king of the hill’, work on our ‘house’ in the back of an old bus and run through freshly plowed fields of soybeans. They taught me how to hit a softball. I learned what an electric fence feels like when you accidentally touch it! It was a small price to pay to hold the baby pigs. I saw my first birth as a baby calf came into the world.
Countless days exploring the Sound with my best friend, Betha. Her backyard was the Inlet Waterway. Here we were also served up a large dose of freedom. We were allowed to ride bikes as far as our endurance could take us. We would take her boat by ourselves to go clamming. It is the only time I liked the taste of clams. Maybe dipping them in freedom was the secret sauce. I felt the vastness of the ocean when the motor quit and we began to drift out to sea. I lived to tell about it. Turned out the gas line came loose. We had the fear, nerves and exhilaration of saving ourselves.
I can’t remember all the weekends I spent playing with cousins on my family’s farm near Chapel Hill, NC. Spending all day, getting dirty, building forts, climbing trees, playing chase. Then riding home in an old pick up truck long after the sun went down, starving and unable to feel fingers and toes from the cold.
Then, just about the time girls my age began chasing boys, my Dad gave me a horse. It was love at first sight! I pined away for him at school all day until the bus could get me to the barn. The only way my parents could drag me away was with promises of when I could come back.
And if I was not at any of those places, you could find me at Wrightsville Beach, 10 minutes from my home. My parents were especially drawn to the ocean. They took us there in the spring, summer, fall AND winter. They went for themselves and we got to benefit.
I spent most of my childhood in some kind of natural setting, playing with other children and/or animals, unsupervised. It was an age of freedom. You must know deep in your bones what that feels like, before you will care enough to seek and protect it. I would like to say that I am giving my children the same experience. Frankly, it is not that easy now. I have access to wild natural areas. I take my children there to play. I arrange play dates. I would lean towards kicking my children out the door and saying “don’t come back till dark”, but they would be alone. Those days of children roaming the neighborhood in their free time are over. Most children are tied up with homework, their electronics or organized after school activities. Present day parents, including myself, worry about the safety of children roaming unsupervised. It is a slippery slope because now there are less children allowed to roam unsupervised which makes it less safe!
Has the age of freedom for children passed? If so, now what? I won’t accept my children growing up without tasting this delicacy. Play, in nature, with other children, without adults hovering and directing.
This past fall, I tried an experiment. Our school has access to a wild wooded area. They believe in the importance of nature based play. So with their permission and support, I started an after school program called the ‘Woods Exploration and Adventure Program‘.
I honestly figured it was a way to get what I wanted for my own kids. I was hoping at least a few kids would sign up. Much to my amazement it filled to capacity. It has become the most popular after school activity. Every single week, I have children asking me to talk their parents into enrolling them.
I am sharing it because it is easier than you think. Call it a grass roots movement to ‘re-wild’ our children and detox them from the sedentary virtual adventures of technology. Let them have some real live adventures of their own. Let them have at least a taste of the freedom most of us grew up taking for granted.
As I gear up for round two, I am learning much along the way. As I watch these children navigate freedom of the forest, I am wondering if we have romanticized the past a bit? Did the complete freedom of days past come at a cost? Did children get socially stuck and need help working things out? Did that lack of a trusted mentor within reach leave kids stuck in roles of bully, bullied, left out, freak…?
I believe we are on the edge of a new age. One that has the potential to be better than the past. A hybrid of what was good about freedom for children to play in nature with other children, combined with the kind of mentoring and support that we know benefits their development. It is free to organize and easy to implement. Any caring parent can do it. Here is all you need.
l. A wild playground. Anything from a vacant lot to a backyard to a forest. Not a planned playground environment. A natural environment to interact with and explore. The more ‘loose parts’ the better.
2. Mixed age group. This is important for social emotional development. Older children become more nurturing when younger ones are present. Younger children step up to learn from older ones. Competition is not as fierce as with same age peers. Valuable learning happens in mixed age play that can not happen otherwise. A ratio of one adult to 12 children is a good guide. Yet, you can do it with just one other family on the block too!
3. Unstructured play. An adult present as a coach for relationship roadblocks. The adult does not direct the play, but can participate or stand back and observe without interrupting the flow. The adult serves as a trusted mentor for children to go to for guidance or comfort. This is very different from structured activities that children spend more and more time in after school. Those are adult led and children are told what to play. They have an important place in teaching skills, but this is child led and created with adult support. This is a crucial part of developing the ‘whole child’. Body/mind/spirit.
4. Enough time. It takes about 45 minutes or longer for children to work through all the negotiations and whining and boredom to enter into deep play. Often times, grown ups get annoyed or discouraged and give up too soon. Two hours is not too long to plan for this activity. I started with a 1 hour program and it is not enough time.
5. Risk taking. Children are allowed to take risks. By having the freedom to practice taking risks, they learn to assess risk, manage their body in space and test their physical abilities in a way for which they are ready. The adult is there to spot, if necessary, but not impede risk taking. If a child is putting themselves or another child in danger, then the adult needs to step in. If it happens repeatedly or with the intent to harm, this may signal a need for further intervention and removal from the group. Most children become safer, by beginning to protect and police each other, when they have freedom to take risks. Parents/teachers/caregivers involved should discuss what they are comfortable with ahead of time so that the group leader has clear guidelines to stay within.
6. Rules. Created by the children with help from the adult at the very beginning. These can be simple. Ours are: 1. stay safe and 2. have fun. This covers pretty much everything.
For many thousands of years we have evolved and developed through play based connection with others in a natural world. Only since the invention of agriculture have we come out of the woods, so to speak. In the last 200 years we have made progress with lightning speed. We do not yet know the unintended consequences of today’s sedentary/technology/achievement driven culture on our evolution. What we do know is that our partnership with nature is a good one and, at the very least, does no harm. At the most, it can be therapeutic and reverse some issues that are on the rise in children. Anxiety, attention disorders, behavior disorders, depression and obesity. Some where in the middle, it can be preventive medicine. Providing our children with unstructured play in nature with other children can be a way to take an active role in our very evolution, balancing our minds and bodies, while we play catch up to our ‘progress’. It is how we invite our children to fall in love…with nature and their own freedom.
“for we will not fight to save what we do not love”
-Stephen J. Gould