Archive for March, 2014

A recent UK survey of children’s views on play found that they are enthusiastic about play that is “exciting”. Give them scope for free play in a suitable setting and the chances are that they will choose some kind of vigorous or rough-and-tumble activity that has some element of risk – climbing a tree, rolling down a grassy slope, swinging on a rope, “exploring” hidden places, for example.Risk taking

risk taking d

This quest to push the envelope, to go beyond the familiar, to move from certainty in order to resolve uncertainty is programmed in their brains. It is the impulse that makes our species the supreme explorers, investigators, innovators and creators. It is the impulse that evolved to enable humans to survive and thrive in a world that was (and will always be) full of uncertainty. Had our ancient forebears not been inveterate risk takers, I doubt that any of us would be here.


(A little too much uncertainty!)

What makes an activity “risky” or “adventurous” is uncertainty about its outcome. Climbing a tree, for example, could be risky for children if they are not certain that they will not slip or be able to get back down. Faced with this uncertainty, children have to weigh up the benefits of attempting the climb – the likely thrill, the sense of achievement, the regard of their mates, for example – against possible undesirable consequence including injury and failure.

Learning how to manage risk taking is an essential life skill. Risk is part and parcel of life. Even if with our best efforts to escape obvious threats to safety and well-being, there are no areas of life that are free of uncertainty. That is why assessing and managing risk are essential life skills. They are skills that need to be developed, practised and refined from as early in childhood as possible.

Free play in nature is an ideal context for doing this because it stimulates children to try out new things and to test themselves physically, mentally and socially. Mistakes will be made in the process and there will be bumps and scrapes, but their enjoyment of novelty and adventure enables children to rebound and learn from these negative experiences.

No one wants to see a child injured, of course, but creating an environment that is overly safe creates a different kind of danger for them. Growing up in a risk-averse society, such as we currently have, means children are not able to practise risk-assessment which enables them to match their skills with the demands of the environment. As a result, many children have become very timid and are reluctant to take risks. At the opposite extreme, many have difficulty reading the situations they face and take foolhardy risks, repeatedly landing in trouble.

One of the best things we can do for our children is to equip them for uncertainty. Cocooning them is not the way to do this. Children can discover their capacity to deal with situations that they find novel, uncertain and threatening only if they are permitted to be in such situations – with appropriate supervision and support, of course. Activities in nature are just right for this purpose. They can help children acquire the skills and confidence to cope with situations that are not fully in their control. I am not talking about dangerous or hazardous situations but everyday situations that are threatening or challenging because we are uncertain about our capacity to deal with them. These are situations that place us outside our “comfort zone”. Nature play enables children to create and explore just such situations.

On one of my wilderness trips, I had the pleasure of watching two young boys having “adventures” and growing in assurance in the process. With their parents they had set up their camp near mine. As I was getting to know their parents, the boys were off exploring the nearby creek and cliffs. They were not always within view but their parents remained constantly alert to what the boys were doing. I learned that the kind of outing that they were on was a regular and high-priority feature of their family life. Both parents were long-time enthusiasts for outdoor activities and they were successfully passing their enthusiasm onto the boys. The older boy told me that, compared with sport and his other leisure activities, he enjoyed outdoor activities most because “you can have adventures” like the one he is having in the photo. Deep Pass Oct 06 026 re-sized


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What is going on in these photos?

Chasings a

The world is ful of problems to solve

Object play

Kids in a cubby

Who needs playground eqiupment

Pretty obviously they are photos of kids playing and having fun. But there is much, much more happening beyond the obvious.

Who is in charge of the play in each case? Again it is fairly obvious – the kids themselves are. This makes what they are doing free or unstructured play. The absence of adults or older children is a strong pointer to this. But this does not mean that adults cannot be involved in free play, Not at all. Who’s in charge is what matters; if it’s the kids, then its free play.

It’s unstructured play of this kind, especially if it is in nature, that I place at the core of an authentic childhood.

Stay with me as I probe deeper into the play activities in the photos to see why.

Perhaps the simplest activity is the game of chasings in the top photo. This is an example of what is called rough-and-tumble or locomotor play. Simple it may look, the game is actually quite complex. Think about the skills involved. There are motor skills such as running, turning, ducking under and climbing over obstacles and the social skills needed to organise the game in the first place. Dr Madeline Levine suggests that “Kids can learn more from a game of chase than from a week of leadership camp”. They certainly learn valuable lessons about their physical capabilities, about themselves more generally and about the fun to be had from exercising those capabilities.

The girl fishing for tadpoles (or whatever) in the second photo is engaged in what is technically called object play. The object in this case, the fishing net, is enabling her to engage the environment in a way that is enormously beneficial. The attending and exploring she is doing are stimulating chemicals in her brain that activate curiosity and improve learning efficiency. Beyond simply having “fun”, the youngster is actually making herself smarter.

The toddler in the third photo is doing much the same as he investigates the leaves, sticks and rocks encountered on his walk. Both children may well be on the way to discovering areas of interest that may someday blossom into passions. In the ranks of great scientists, there are many who trace their achievements to interests born in childhood nature play. Joseph Banks, one of world’s foremost botanists, is a case in point. He attributed his passion for plants to his wildflower rambles as a child.

I hope the fourth photo takes you back to your childhood and memories of building and playing in cubbies. The children in the photo are taking part in a mixture of social and pretend play – both absolutely essential for healthy development. They are learning how to work together, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to advocate for themselves. They are creating and exploring a world they can master and very likely practising adult roles.

The powerful contribution of pretend play to children’s development is well documented. It fosters creative thinking and imaginative reasoning and is associated with the enrichment of both receptive and expressive language.

The fifth picture reminds us that risk-taking is part of play. Apart from exercising his balance and co-ordinatioin skills, the boy is learning about challenges and his ability to meet them. He is exploring physical and mental boundaries, conquering fears perhaps, building confidence and developing resilience in the process.

Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and leading investigator of play, has found that deprivation of free play in childhood is associated later in life with lack of empathy, mental rigidity, diminished curiosity, workaholism, addictions, joylessness, anxiety and “smouldering” depression. Even more alarming is his observation that a common feature of the early lives of the hundreds of serial killers and murderers he has studied was few opportunities for free play and combined sometimes with perverted and cruel forms of play.

Another important point that Brown constantly emphasises is that human beings are one of the few species that are playful throughout the lifecycle. This means that adults and children can participate in play together. What a happy thought – families can engage in nature play together! If you want ideas about how to engage in nature play with children in your life, you might like to see what I have to say about this in my books, Claim Your Wildness and A Day in the Bush

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