Bringing nature back into child’s play

Man and boy fishing by the Eramosa River

As a boy I played endlessly in an overgrown woodlot we neighbourhood children called The Jungle. Massive Manitoba maples, trees-of-heaven, stinging nettles, staghorn sumac, wild grapes and native sweet cicely, Osmorhiza claytonii, obscured mysterious archaeological evidence, such as the concrete foundation of an old shed. We cut trails through the undergrowth, built a series of tree forts and played elaborate role-playing games inspired by William Shakespeare and C.S. Lewis. We chewed on snake’s tongues (grape tendrils) and wild licorice (sweet cicely stems) and ground shattered bricks to make magic red powder. Summer days passed quickly.

Unfortunately, the outdoors fills a rapidly decreasing space in child’s play. Computer games have absorbed their impulse to explore and invent things. Parents, guided by the big bad wolf syndrome of suburban life, have become increasingly protective, preventing children from engaging in unstructured, unsupervised play. Technology replaces nature as playground.

Richard Luov‘s 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, described what he called nature deficit disorder. He blamed many contemporary childhood malaises such as obesity, depression and attention disorders on a social divide with the outdoors. This condition has not been medically recognized. However, it has led to a movement toward sending children back outdoors, manifesting in alternative schools and programs such as the Back to Nature Network.

Wilderness experiences are wonderful, but children can connect with nature even in urban settings. Plants and animals can be found anywhere Earth and air connect. Here are a few ideas for encouraging children to reengage.

Find a sit spot

A sit spot is a place outdoors close to home where you feel safe to sit quietly and observe. Ideally it should contain a variety of changing natural elements like plants, animals and water, but above all it should be in a place easy to reach. Good places are teachers and can become best friends. Encourage children to look for spots that feel inviting. Let them go there regularly to sit quietly, perhaps with a notebook or sketchbook. Fifteen minutes a day is ideal.

Plant a garden

A whole garden may be a big responsibility for a small child, but invite them to participate by planting one or a few things. Let them choose what kind of plants they prefer. Apartment dwellers can grow a plant on a balcony or windowsill. In winter lettuce or herbs can grow in a sunny place indoors. Grow them from seed to get the whole experience of observing a plant mature. You will find numerous posts about gardening on this blog.

Brenna on Grand Manan Island

Go camping

Take a child on a camping trip. It may be the most valuable gift you ever give them. In 2005 I took my daughters on a tour of Canada’s Maritime Provinces. The night we camped atop a cliff on Grand Manan Island (above), New Brunswick, and heard whales breaching in the darkness was one of the most memorable shared experiences of our lives. Encourage them to play but also participate in the responsibilities of setting up and taking down camp, preparing food, and building a campfire. Simple challenges build resourcefulness.

Give them a camera

Let them use simple, point-and-shoot cameras to engage with surroundings. Photography is a great teacher in the art of seeing. It encourages children to carefully stalk and observe creatures. They can collect images and make experiences their own without taking things that belong outdoors.

Use a Smartpen

Technology geeks will get a kick out of using this simple tool. It allows a child to record audio while drawing or making notes in a special notebook. My Pencast from the woods demonstrates how it works. A Smartpen offers an alternative way to observe and take notes in a child’s sit spot. It helps practise the art of storytelling and can even record sounds of nature at close range.

Hunt for treasure

Provide them with a list of things to look for in the neighbourhood or a park, such as a feather, something fallen from a tree, and a purple flower. This works particularly well in conjunction with a camera, allowing children to capture images instead of collecting objects. It is also a good team game for parties. Encourage cooperation rather than competition.

It is debatable how many childhood problems can be attributed to nature deficit disorder, but unquestionably there are social consequences of alienation from nature. Encouraging children to interact with the environment will build respect for it, as well as valuable personal skills. Please share additional activity ideas in the comment section.

2 thoughts on “Bringing nature back into child’s play

  1. Great tips. I completely agree. Though I am not a parent (and don’t intend to be one for a while), I believe today’s youth is increasingly dependent on technology. Even me; I catch myself obsessing over text messages and games on my phone when it is petty and unhealthy. I think a huge issue is absent parenting and not teaching your children these values. It’s easier to keep them distracted than to actually teach them to behave and appreciate nature and human bonding/connection.

    When my family gathers at my house, I have realized we converse and interact with each other, but instead of looking face to face, we are all on our iPads or cellphones. It makes me really sad because one of the greatest things about being together with your family is the shared bonding and closeness you feel when you have real conversations. And it also scares me because since I am very young (only 22) and my generation has grown up with texting and cellphones, I don’t see this problem going away, only becoming more and more prevalent with the next generation.

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting, Darlanne. It’s an interesting point you make. I’m 49 and yet I have bought into the technological quagmire pretty deeply, too. I don’t know how I would manage without my laptop and smartphone.

      You might find some food for thought in an article, Dark Ecology, by Paul Kingsnorth in a recent issue of Orion magazine. He talks about how society is bound to collapse when more and more people depend on technology they cannot master themselves. Practically nobody can master a computer because no one person can know how everything works and keep it in good repair. The more dependent we are on a complex social structure to provide us with basic needs like food and social connection, the more vulnerable that structure becomes to a catastrophic collapse. He doesn’t advise people to throw away their laptops, but encourages us to rely more for our living on simpler tools.

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