Reading this wonderful brief article by Dr Kumara Ward (a lecturer in Early Childhood Education at the University of Western Sydney) is a delight and explains the research surrounding the need for children to develop a connection with the natural environment.
I cannot add more to her thorough understanding in this area (but highly recommend you read her post). I will simply add my own personal experience to her wisdom, and a small solution that we use to ensure our own city dwelling kids do not miss these opportunities to connect with nature.
I personally grew up in remote Tasmania. It was a 1hr ‘nature trail’ to walk to the nearest shop, my backyard was an enormous expanse of bush land with creeks, ponds, boulders. Eagles lived in the tree tops, and wombats burrowed in our garden. I built houses out of manferns, and regularly came home in gumboots filled with swamp water. I knew where I belonged; I respected it and cared for all things in it. My first pets were orphaned possums, wombats and wallabies. This was my childhood. I did not run wild, but I was always in the wild.
I now am raising my children in the suburbs. They can run the boarder of their backyard in under a minute, and hear the neighbors through the fence. They don’t visit the creek, but rather the museum. They don’t climb boulders, but rather a pirate ship at the park. They have all the perks of living in a lovely small capital city, but when I was a child myself I would look at the city kids with pity. Everything you do in a city is paid for, done for you. This was a simplified understanding, but one that has a little truth in it.
Everything my children do is structured. The climbing equipment and slide are made for that purpose and you need to follow the rules of the equipment in order to play harmoniously with the other children at the park. There are rules of how to behave in the library, museum or at shows. There are set times for physical play, set times for quite behavior and countless subtle rules in all situations.
Spending time in wild places is not about structured hikes or activities. It is simply about spending time in that space and seeing what happens. Instead of meeting at the part for a play date (where everything has specific purpose and rules) choose to meet at a creek for a picnic. There are rules in wild places (ones to keep you safe) but not rules about how you engage with the space, how you play. This is true ‘free play’.
This weekend we took our children to a river, hopped across the rocks and sat down with our hot chips on the small rocky island in the center of the river. My children barely ate a chip before they were off exploring.
“This is scary and hard and wonderful and fun!” said Anica as she negotiated the rocks and water that formed her path upstream.
“I have a mumma rock, 4 baby rocks and… look there’s the dadda!” cried Elka as she darted into the water to get the rock that caught her eye.
Elka later invented ‘rock hide and seek’ (throw a rock and then find were it is hiding). And Anica was most excited when she saw a lizard swim away. (We checked that this lizard had legs and was not in fact a snake!)
My children actively explored scientific concepts such as flow, pressure, displacement, erosion. They physically balanced, manipulated objects and worked with the current. Just by being in the space their brains were problem solving to move around, their resilience was building as they failed and tried again, their little toes were sending a wealth of sensory information to their brain. This is not something that happens as naturally in a structured play environment.
I do not regret choosing to raise my children in a city. Nor do I regret my remote upbringing. My parents worked hard to ensure my remote upbringing did not mean I missed out on the culture and opportunities that comes from larger cities. Equally I must ensure that my children’s city up bring isn’t void of wild places and free play.
This is not hard to do, all it requires is some time in a wild place, but it is something that needs to be actively remembered and valued.
Next time you are arranging a play date, opt for a wild place and see what happens. Bring a snack, but don’t bring activities to fill the void, let the location fill the void. You might be delighted at what you find. (Sometimes it’s even a physical ‘find’ – this is Elka’s wooden fish, she loved him very much!)