I want my children to spend more time playing in the woods! I want them to build forts and climb trees and play wild games of chase and hide and seek. I want them to co-exist with bugs, ants, spiders and snakes without hyperventilating.
Here is why and what I did about it.
Their school has access to a natural wooded area with a creek running through it.
Last year Hannah’s teacher took them out here to play. Not all the teachers felt so comfortable doing this. The teachers at this school love the children as their own. A wild wooded area where children run free is intimidating. The fear of them getting hurt is unbearable. I understand and appreciate this. Finding the balance between safety and the need to explore is not always so simple.
So this past August, I helped coordinate an in-service for all the teachers with a naturalist. We took them out to play and learn in this outdoor classroom. The following is my letter shared with them, making a case for more time in the woods.
I, Michaux Shaffer, mother of Hannah and Zeke, am here today as a parent representative in full support of my children spending time each day in the woods, regardless of weather, mud, bugs and risk. I will give you 3 good reasons I feel strongly about this.
- Nature is the original multi-sensory learning experience. It’s got it all. Children can access, engage and feed all their senses. It is a full body experience. This forest is a natural library. It contains an endless and untapped supply of multi-sensory learning opportunities children can explore at their own pace. I want my children to have full access to one of our most valuable teachers–mother nature.
- Spending time in the natural world benefits not only learning, but the development of the ‘whole child’. In Chicago access to outdoor movement and play is consistently limited at school by severe weather. Many times, we begin to better understand the value of something when we see the effects of its absence. Each winter we lived there, I watched my children grow pasty and weak, losing muscle tone and getting sick often. My last winter there, the children did not go outside to recess for 3 months straight during an especially cold winter. Sensory Integration issues, mood, attention and behavior disorders in children that require therapeutic intervention are on the rise. There is a connection between this rise in serious disorders and children spending less time outdoors. I saw this first hand in my work as a Marriage and Family Therapist. It was not just my children who were suffering from lack of outdoor play and movement. There were many other children who were suffering even more severely than my own. I saw everything from lacking the core strength to sit up in class, to phobias of, not only dirt and bugs, but the very ground itself! Not to mention, severe anxiety and depression in younger and younger children. More and more research is focusing on extended time in nature as a therapeutic intervention alternative for these disorders with amazing results.
- My children, Zeke and Hannah. Richard Louv in his book, “Last Child in the Woods” tells us that fear of the natural world comes when we disconnect from it. When children develop a personal relationship with nature, they become stewards of the earth. One of the core values in Judaism is Tikkun Olam (repair the world). I would like to find as many ways as possible for my children to uncover their power to repair the world around them. I want my children to learn about habitat restoration and benefit from the therapeutic effects of spending time in a natural and wild habitat. Last year, Hannah loved going to school more than I have ever seen her. I asked her what gave her that spring in her step? She thought for a minute and replied simply, “the woods”. So I joined them one day at recess to see first hand what she was loving so much. I witnessed a high level of imaginative play and movement in all different planes of motion. Running, jumping, balancing, lifting etc. I tried to keep up with them to video their play. I run on trails regularly. I consider myself somewhat fit. I could not keep up. They were able to move quickly over and under very technical terrain and through tight spaces. Aside from being a workout that could stand up in any ‘cross fit’ gym across the country, these are all kinds of movement and sensory experiences that an OT would prescribe for children with sensory issues. In a country where childhood obesity is on the rise, I can’t imagine a more beneficial way to get children moving. I also observed that the freedom to take risks, climbing and jumping had significantly developed their judgment and ability to navigate this natural space, therefore, making them safer in the process. When they were showing me how they climb on a ‘climbing wall’ of vines, I asked if they could go any higher? They responded, “no” that they had learned through experience that to go higher was to risk pulling the vines down and falling. Play researcher, Peter Gray, in his book, “Free to Learn” writes that when children and animals are given freedom to take risks in play they don’t just jump off rooftops to risk their lives. They become scientists. They systematically take calculated risks that they can handle, exposing themselves to levels of danger and fear that test themselves, and then incorporate what they learn. This means that they will get dirty and fall down. But it also means they will develop safer judgement and increased body awareness and control. Allowing children to take risks makes them safer! Zeke is a great example of this. He has already had 2 concussions, a broken foot and stitches in his chin. In his stuntman personality he takes more physical risks than most children. I have learned through experience, that if I do not let him learn HOW to fall, he will be in much greater danger down the road. He is, by far, the most skilled ‘mover’ in our family. He has astounding skill, body awareness and control of his body in space that makes him more coordinated, mobile and SAFE than most children his age. I want my children to have access to this natural playground so they can take these calculated risks, test themselves and become safer in the process.
We know that it is crucial for children to have time to move, play and explore. But when we give them this, in combination with the natural world, we take out an insurance policy of sorts for the future. For their future and the future of their world.
I want my children to spend time in the woods getting messy, taking risks, repairing their world and experiencing ‘full body learning’. I believe this is how we support the development of safer, smarter, happier, healthier kids.
Please share this with anyone and everyone that you feel could benefit from it.
Yours Warmly–Michaux Shaffer