When I take Patrick outside, on a trail somewhere or at a nature park, as a parent I allow him these (what seem to me simple and obvious) activities for children:
- running on a trail, out of my arm’s reach
- climbing on tree stumps
- picking up sticks and letting his imagination run wild
- touching plants, but not stinging nettle or poison oak
- rolling over logs to find critters underneath
I have no problem letting my child engage with the natural world. Unless there are signs at a particular park that ask not to do anything specific (in most cases, not going off trail), we find it a necessary task to not only play in nature, but to play with nature. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees.
I recall one time when Patrick and I were taking a stroll through Tryon Creek State Park, in Portland, when we came upon a group of kids from a middle school. They were on a field trip, and had chaperones that must have been high school students or a little older. These chaperones were asking the students to: “Stay in the middle of the trail” / “Stay in a single file line” / “Don’t touch anything” / etc. As I heard these demands, whilst Patrick is running free along the trail, I asked to myself, “Why bother taking a group of kids on a field trip to a state park, a forest?” If all they can do is walk in a straight line and dare not make physical contact with any of the trees, flowers, slugs, logs, and rocks that for whatever reason their teachers decided they needed to see but NOT touch, why even go outside? I do understand there is the need on part of the teachers and others watching over the kids to control a large group, but to ask a child to go outside but not touch anything they see is, to me, an immediate turn off to nature for that child. I emailed about this experience to Richard Louv (this was in August 2010), and he replied, “that behavior is widespread, unfortunately. But fortunately there are people like you offering a different vision of the world.” Here’s Patrick on that same visit to Tryon Creek, wandering ahead and, oh my, with a stick in his hand:
Sticks. Oh, sticks. This brings me to a more recent observation (in early July) at Gabriel Park, also here in Portland. Patrick and I were out walking through the park, and stopped so he could play on a playground. While he played and I sat nearby on a bench, a group of summer camp kids (with a Portland Parks & Recreation-run camp through the Southwest Community Center at Gabriel Park) came upon the playground and proceeded to be kids. I think they were taking a break from whatever-themed camp they were participating in. At one point, a kid picked up a broken branch from a tree. What he intended to do with the stick, I do not know, but one of the camp staff immediately (I mean less than a second after he picked it up) said: “We don’t play with nature. Put it down.” She could have asked, “What are you going to do with the stick?” or “Make sure not to hurt anyone with that stick, okay?” But no, We don’t play with nature. Again, I see this as a turn off. If she meant it as a blank statement for the time that the kid is with the summer camp, and not a general rule for life, then maybe saying such a thing is fine. But is it? The kid is signed up, afterall, for a summer camp through a parks and recreation group, and it is in a park. Again, I understand the need to look out for other kids and control a large group of them, but if a kid is not allowed to pick up a stick, in a park of all places, what larger message about one’s relationship to nature is this kind of attitude sending into the minds of youth?
I contacted Portland Parks & Recreation about this observation and received a response from a former camp director at SWCC. He basically said the intention of the camp staff who told the kid to put the stick down and said “We don’t play with nature” was most likely two- fold: to ensure the park was left as it was before the campers were there, and to avoid any future misuse of the stick. While he commented that kids can rip out grass and pester/kill insects, I do not see what impact moving a stick that was already on the ground would have on a 90-acre park. Again, the issue of controlling a large group of kids is of concern here, but the camp staff’s reaction was so immediate and absolutely not in response to an individual circumstance. I think a better way for her to have gone about it would be to ask the kid what his intentions for picking up the stick were. Perhaps he was interested in looking closer at some moss or lichen growing on the branch, or something else wholly unknown because he was not given that chance to explore. We allow children to hit balls with metal bats and slam helmeted heads together, but the idea of a kid holding a stick and perhaps using it to encourage his or her own imagination is scary and a big no-no.
Often times I find myself asking when I observe how some adults or older children who act as educators/mentors/etc. discourage nature play: “Why even go outside?” These sorts of issues have been discussed recently by two environmental educators and a biologist, and their articles are all worth your time reading, especially if you yourself usually follow the “don’t touch” rule:
Ron Swaisgood, “Nature Bullies: A conservation biologist’s perspective on children in nature” (The New Nature Movement, May 22, 2012)
David Sobel, “Look, Don’t Touch: The problem with environmental education” (Orion, July/August 2012)
Ken Finch, “But… Isn’t It Dangerous? Risk and Reward in Nature Play” (Riverhabitat, July 17, 2012)