More time in the woods Part 2

An Afterschool Program

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.

Ingredients:

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

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making my case for more time in the woods

A Mother’s Manifesto

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.

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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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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

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The gift of a

Frisbee Summer

My oldest son, Noah, is coming home in exactly 5 days, 1hour and 32 minutes.  Yes, I am counting it down.  I have not seen him since August 28, 2014.  To be a first timer at letting go of my first fledgling, I think this is pretty hard core.   I went from the comfort of having him sleep at night under my roof, safe and sound, to an occasional phone call from another time zone, halfway across the world.

Last June 2014, I was still reeling from a surprise cancer diagnosis and immediate major surgery as I stood (and mostly sat) at his graduation from high school.

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It hit me.  I had a summer.  I had one precious summer left in my house with all my children living under my roof before it changed forever.  Sure, we can always count on change, but for the last 18 years I had been a stay at home mother with at least one small child not even in school yet.  I never had to adjust to life as they leave my nest.  My life had been about adjusting around these children who were always around me!  Now, my child was leaving for another country and I was moving away from Chicago.

At first, I panicked.  I will confess that I don’t do panic very well.  It looked something like me pouncing on my 18 year old son at breakfast with a guilt trip about not spending enough time with me.  It went from there to an angry tirade about ‘aren’t we important to you? We are your FAMILY!’   If you had a video camera, you would have seen him looking at me wide eyed and nodding, mouth open.   He then backed out the door slowly, breakfast forgotten, until he cleared the door frame, at which time, he RAN to the car and drove off as fast as he knew he could get away with.  I cried.

I knew I could not prevent the inevitable.  This child was leaving home.  It was time.  It was exactly what I knew was a successful outcome.  A child confident and independent enough to go out into the world and figure out his path.  But damn it sucked.

When I related the conversation to Richard, he laughed.  Then he shared with me the secret sauce.  “Michaux, if you chase him, he will run away.  He is an 18 year old boy.  Just find something fun to do with him, then make the time to do it. That is all you have.”

I knew he was right.  (enjoy that statement Richard, it is rare)  At first, I did the standard mother things.  I spent money on him.  I took him out for lunch, or dinner.  I took him shopping.  We went to the movies.  But that will only take you so far.

Then one day the answer came.  Noah was sitting on the couch frustrated that a friend had ditched plans with him.  I was, of course, secretly jumping up and down, clapping my hands at an unexpected chance to have time with him.  I went through the list of things I could think of to do and he ‘poo pooed’ all of them.  He was really not happy about being dumped.  I finally said in frustration, “Noah I just want to hang out with you!”  He sat there for a minute, and then he looked at me and said, “You know all I really want to do is play frisbee.”  (NOW WE ARE TALKING!!)

OH YEAH!  Noah and I played some FRISBEE.  We played.  All summer.

Whenever we could sneak away from the other kids, (they would always take over the game) we would grab the frisbee and go to the big field at the park and play.  It was pure play.  Neither one of us willing to call the game.  It became a friendly competition to see if I (old, broken down) could outlast him (young, strong).

One particular day, I was in bed suffering and sick, and Noah came home with a new official frisbee.  He bounded like a puppy into the house and demanded that I get out of bed!  I couldn’t imagine how I was gonna get out of bed at that moment, and yet, I couldn’t imagine how I was NOT gonna get out of that bed.  So I got out! I played for an hour  before the other kids realized I was outside having fun without them.

When Noah did leave home and we did pack up our house and move across states, it was pretty traumatic.   I didn’t get to go visit him, or even talk to him much.  I don’t know what his room looked like.  He hasn’t seen our new home.  I didn’t get to meet his teachers or his new found friends.  I will admit to some tears about all this.  Yet, I had that frisbee summer tucked into my heart to hold onto.   It was a gift that sustained me.

Now I am getting the gift of another summer.  I will have all my children under my roof for a short time.  This time, in August I have to face sending  TWO of my four children off into the world.  My daughter, Micah, 14 is leaving home to attend school back in Chicago.

This decision was obviously not made over night.  It was a tough trial and year for her here in SC.  I watched her suffer and prayed for the answer.  I was bothered that her brother had a wonderful Jewish high school education and I could not give her the same.  So when she came to us and asked to go away to school, I knew I had to take her seriously.  I listened with a heavy heart.  I felt angry and cheated just thinking about being absent from her high school experience.  She is only 14!  How can I lose another one!  I was supposed to have four more years before I had to do that ‘letting go’ thing again.  It felt so unfair and yet I knew it was what she needed.

I made the phone call to the admissions counselor and was sick to my stomach the entire time.  I got off the phone and bawled.  I laid face down on the floor and shook.  I called G-d a few bad words.  I could not get up for awhile.

Then I stopped.  I remembered last year this same time.  I looked at all the reasons I did not want her to go and knew they were my selfish reasons not hers.  I realized I had to figure out MY path separate from my children.  Because, dammit they are gonna grow up and leave you.  And that is if it all goes WELL.  I knew if I did not figure out my purpose in this world I would not survive this child rearing.  My heart was breaking.

So I let it go.  I pulled out my frisbee summer from my heart space and let it soothe me.  I began to look forward to the fleeting gift ahead.  A summer.  This is what I have.  I must embrace it and use it to create new memories to tuck into my heart.  I must enjoy my children while I have them.  That is all we really have.

I can’t wait to play frisbee.  I look at the long golf hole number 3 out my back yard and see the game in my imagination.  I am excited to discover what else?  What gift will I get with Micah to sustain my heart this fall?   Maybe it will be the foraging for wild blackberries after dinner in the vacant lot nearby.

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Maybe it will be the kayaking down the Saluda River.  Maybe it will be the silly dancing in the kitchen while I cook.  Maybe it will be all of the above!  Maybe it will be something from G-d’s great imagination that I can’t fathom.

I am trying to figure out what else I am, but right now I am a mother.  A mother getting used to my children leaving home.  A mother learning how to let go but not despair.

A mother looking forward to another frisbee summer 🙂

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Yom Kippur 2014

My Graduation Speech

It has been quite a year for my family.  Maybe that is an understatement.  This New Year has brought with it a new direction for us.  We are moving to Columbia, SC.

Yesterday we packed all that we own on a moving truck and sent it south.  When we will see it again is unknown.  It was wonderfully freeing to let go of it all (for now).  The timing so significant.  It has removed the clutter from my line of sight.  I can see that what I have with me, is all that I need.

12 years ago, when we moved to Chicago from TN, I felt I landed on a different planet.  I had not lived anywhere but the South.  I did not own a real coat.  I did not understand the depth of the word “winter”.  I did not even have an accent before I moved here. 🙂

And I was not Jewish.  But I wanted to be.  More importantly, I wanted my children to be.

12 years ago, the very first person I met in this community was Amy.  The very second person was her sister-in-law, Laurie.  Looking back, I now understand the significance.

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I had left everything behind, including family.  I had set out on a journey, a Quest.  And G-d had sent me guides.

They adopted us into their family and community.  Then they spent the next 12 years educating us about what that really means.

When I talk to G-d about it, the conversation goes something like this:   “WOW  THANKS”

They not only taught me how to cook and the proper way to throw a dinner.  They held my hand through 2 conversions, my wedding, a Bar and Bat Mitzvah, and the birth of 2 more children.

Then they held me up when I faced a fight with cancer this year.  They taught me how to broaden and deepen my definition of family.  They taught me how to give of myself.  How to welcome a stranger.  They taught me what it means to be a Jew.

As our son, Noah, graduated from 12 years of Jewish education…so do I.

As he sets out on a Quest to find his mission in the world…so do we.

I am ready.  Amy and Laurie, you have prepared me well.  I take all your loving and giving with me.  I am stronger and deeper and bigger than before knowing you.  So I say to you, “WOW  THANKS”

Although Yom Kippur is a time of atonement, I keep falling into gratitude.  It is clear that all my blessings have been undeserved.  Simply Grace.

My prayer for Yom Kippur is this, “Please write me into the book of life!  For another year of life here on Earth is just too good to miss”.

I do not know what it will bring.  I head into Sukkot without even a tent.  Just a suitcase, my family and a direction on our compass.  Yet, I fully expect that the Lord will, again, give me all that I need.  I have learned that it will be wilder and more magnificent than I can even imagine.

So ahead of time I say,   “WOW  THANKS”

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