A while ago I wrote on the importance of letting kids physically interact with, use and build with the stuff of nature, not just observe. Soon after I read “Look, Don’t Touch” in Orion by David Sobel, on the same idea. Now I’m reading the letters responding to that article. The writers of these letters remember special places where they played in the semi-wild and want to support the hands-on idea, but, sadly, they cannot in our day. It is nostalgic and unrealistic, it seems, to want kids to be able to dig holes, divert streams, and construct forts in the woods. Because what if everyone did that? Population is getting out of control, green spaces smaller, ecosystems more stressed and at risk, so we have to keep our hands off unless absolutely necessary, otherwise our natural spaces will be “loved to death.”
Yes, what if everyone did that? Someone has always had to to ask that question. And keep asking it. I always knew it applied to branch-breakers, polluters, people who let their dogs poop on the trail, and butterfly collectors, but somehow I missed that it might also apply to those who want to do something positive–to get closer, learn and explore, to create, build, and obtain nourishment. Because of what our society has collectively done to this earth, has it come to the point that we must lose such precious opportunities for our kids to bond with nature? How will our kids grow up to care enough about the earth to save it, if they only learn what it’s for, at least to humans, from theory?
What about this: What if no one did that? David Sobel was thinking of that, seeing the consequences of too little deep interaction with the rest of nature. Richard Louv wrote Last Child in the Woods to warn of the consequences of this modern trend. It’s serious: children fail to bond with nature–that is, develop a deep caring relationship with the earth, and grow up to objectify nature. This is part of what has led to the environmental problems we have today. Nature becomes merely “natural resources,” even if we know they are limited and conserve for pragmatic reasons. Or for some, nature becomes kind of living force that wants to throw us off, something to be feared.
I agree, we can’t open up all parks and preserves to free play. But besides traditional green spaces and durable manufactured play structures, cities also need areas that can submit to more hands-on play. Every community ought to choose places, besides those that harbor fragile ecosystems, open them up for natural play, and rotate them (like croplands) now and then if they are in danger of being “loved to death.” Perhaps private property owners can rotate in their unused plots for a time. Of course, those of us who have access to our own lands can make a point of sharing with kids in our communities, inviting them for unstructured play or, if necessary, mentoring them in natural play (without electronics, organized games, or programmed learning activities). Even the rotation of a site into “low touch” mode can have great educational value, demonstrating nature’s resiliency and limits thereof, as well as the results of environmental restoration work.
I have done a rotation of this sort on a small scale in my yard for many years for my four children, making certain areas of my garden available to my kids and their friends for digging, fort-building, leaf-jumping and such. Mud baths and bug play parks are favorite activities. Sometimes they even light small fires during the wet season and roast apples or invent soups from things they find in the yard. They have especially enjoyed having these play times in sibling pairs–they call them “special times,” and I can remember numerous combinations of kids, each with its special dynamic. As homeschoolers, we always had time and opportunities to do this, and I almost always suspended formal lessons when a special time was going on. Special outings to our wooded plot of land would involve capturing snakes and lizards, seeing what new bird and rodent nests had been built since last time, creating island worlds in an old wading pool with clumps of sod, water and found objects, and experimenting with natural materials to discover their properties and uses. When friends were invited I would basically tell the kids the boundaries and rendezvous procedure, and off they’d go into the nearby woods and clearings while turned my hand to my garden plot or just sat in the shade with a good book.