Posts Tagged ‘Nature play’

This weekend, in cities around the world, people are marching in support of science and evidence-based policy making. As I write this, thousands of Australians have already taken part in the global March for Science. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to demonstrate in the same way, largely in response to President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to science and his scepticism about the causes and consequences of climate change.

The well-being of Australians is being jeopardised by much the same governmental devaluing of science and climate change “denialism”. Emperor Economics and his sidekicks, Prince Political Power Protection and Duke Dogmatic Ideology, are reigning supreme.

Protests against these threats to informed rationality are to be welcomed but it is staggering to think that such activity is necessary after 250 years of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.

How are Trump and countless others of influence and power able to get away with making policies and decisions based on assumptions, opinions, gut-feelings and ideological prejudices rather than scientific (or factual) evidence?

Is it because too few of their constituents have the scientific literacy to question and challenge them? If the growing concern about school students’ declining performance and participation in science is anything to go by, this could be the case.

But let’s be realistic in our expectations. The formal study of science, especially at more advanced levels, is not for everyone. Nor is such study necessary in order to be scientifically literate in a very useful and powerful way. We can all “do” science.

This little girl (Zoe) is “doing” science.

She is seeking to understand her world by investigating, observing and testing it against what she already “knows” or believes. This is exactly what genuine science is about.





If she continues to do this through the formative years of childhood and adolescence, she will assemble the basic components of scientific literacy, namely:

  • a keen desire to investigate and learn about the physical and social world she occupies
  • an authentic but growing and malleable picture of that world
  • an understanding and appreciation of the kind of evidence (anchored to observation and objectively tested) that is needed to build that picture

Of these components, the last is the most important for navigating the sea of fake news, propaganda, dogma, spin, half-truths and lies that washes our way daily. I believe that a universal commitment to the principle of living under the guidance of sound evidence would make the world a much better place. And fostering that commitment in our children has to be a priority in their upbringing.

How far little ones like Zoe will travel on the road to scientific literacy depends on many factors, how they are nurtured in science at school being a key one. But parents (and grandparents) can also contribute significantly by –

  • sharing, supporting and encouraging their children’s “science” play
  • encouraging such play by locating their children in stimulating settings especially in the natural world
  • talking to their children about what they are seeing doing and discovering
  • encouraging observation, discussion and reflection when things of interest are encountered in daily life.
  • using questions to bring out the scientist in their children, such as

What is it doing? How does it feel? How are they alike? How are they different? What if…? How could we…? Why do you think…? Can you explain that?

It is worth noting that research from the USA suggests that most children form an opinion about science by the time they are seven years old. This is surely reason enough to expose children from a very early age to the scientific playgrounds to be found everywhere in the out-of-doors.










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In 1960, an American psychiatrist, Herbert Hendin, was looking through statistics showing the rates of suicide in various countries. He was surprised to find enormous differences across the three Scandinavian countries, Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Of all the countries Hendin surveyed, Denmark had the highest rate (along with Japan) whereas Norway had the lowest. Sweden was also well up the list, much closer to Denmark than to Norway.

Hendin was so intrigued by the contrasting rates that he travelled to Scandinavia to investigate the likelihood that cultural differences lay behind the differences. He spent four years there, learning Swedish and Norwegian in order to undertake his research. Although many factors influence the incidence of suicide, Hendin was able to conclude that differences in childrearing values and practices across the three countries were part of the explanation.

Norwegian child at playIn simple terms, Norwegian children played more freely, enjoyed more independence, had more opportunities to investigate the natural environment and spent more time learning by doing rather than being instructed. In contrast, childhood in Denmark and Sweden was more subject to adult control and expectations concerning education, careers and life goals generally. Under these conditions, Hendrin believed, Danish and Swedish children were more likely to experience failure, to have feelings of inadequacy and diminished self-worth and to develop anxiety and depression as a consequence. Norwegian children, on the other hand, encountered much less external pressure and, through their greater participation in free play, were more likely to develop self-confidence and resilience rather than self-doubt and vulnerability.

These different worlds of childhood reflected the contrasting economic and social environments thatNorway a existed in Scandinavia at the time. The rugged terrain of Norway had fostered small-scale, family-owned farming and fishing activity that kept many Norwegians in close touch with the natural world. For the children this meant that playing in this world was an integral part of life – indeed it was their life to a very large extent. Just as their parents had to exercise independence, self-reliance and resourcefulness, so too did the children. It is no surprise that their fairy-tale folk hero, Ash-lad, was a reflective, nature-savvy and highly enterprising individualist who found all sorts of unconventional ways of coming out on top.

The Ash-lad studying the embers

The Ash-lad studying the embers

Independence and individuality were much less valued elsewhere in Scandinavia. The flatter landscapes of Sweden and Denmark were much more conducive to large-scale and technological farming and to the centralisation of ownership. This gave rise to much less economic and social autonomy at the personal level and the strengthened perception that it was necessary to compete through personal achievement in order to get ahead.

Unlike its neighbours, Norway resisted Germany in World War 11. This strengthened the Ash-lad ideology. Then, the post-war economic boom spurred the rebuilding and development of Norway’s fisheries, farming and industry, a process that was greatly accelerated by a work-force steeped in the Ash-lad ethos. But this transformation ultimately brought Norway into the world of corporate capitalism and international economic competition, to the detriment of small-scale farming and fishing. In this new world, the influence of the Ash-lad is weakening even though his example of learning through, from and in nature continues to shape Norwegian educational values and practice. Norwegian children are now behaving and striving much more like their counterparts in other Western countries. Free play in natural surroundings is much less the norm.

And what of the Norwegian suicide rate at the end of this era of change? It is one of the highest in the world!

Now, the Norwegian story does not conclusively show that a link exists between:

(a) a pressured childhood in which there are fewer opportunities for free play and contact with nature and

(b) heightened anxiety, depression and suicide risk in later life.

But we have to consider the possibility of such a link. There is mounting evidence that outdoor play has long-term benefits for physical, social, emotional and cognitive development. Among other things, it fosters a sense of identity, feelings of autonomy and psychological resilience – all important contributors to a healthy sense of self-worth and a decreased risk of anxiety and depression.    


I found much of the material for this post in Sigmund Kvalϕy-Sӕtereng’s chapter in Nature First: Outdoor Life the Friluftsliv Way.

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“Security guards to target unruly parents at junior league games”. This is the frontGBR:  FA Respect Pr Shoot - Ray Winstone 23/02/2009 page story of a recent edition of Sydney’s Sun-Herald.

Evidently the verbal and physical aggression of parents watching their kids play rugby league in the Penrith district west of Sydney has become a safety issue and is threatening to discourage participation in the “game”.

In applauding the initiative, Brad Fittler, a former Australian league team captain, observed that some parents live their lives through their children. Of his own career as a junior player he said, “I have clearer memories as a 10 year-old player than I do from representing Australia…mainly bad ones…getting chased by parents”.

And the problem is not confined to rugby league. Last year, Canberra football administrators took the extraordinary step of locking the crowd out of an under-12s soccer game after a previous meeting between the sides had resulted in a violent pitch battle involving parents.

The decision of the management of the Penrith District Junior Rugby League to make matches non-competitive for junior age groups provides a real clue as to where the real problem lies.

Thank goodness there are Penrith league enthusiasts who have tumbled to the fact that whatever good there is in playing the sport can be undermined by its intrinsic competitiveness.

But let’s face it – this is true of all competitive sport. Participation in sporting contests can be beneficial. It can be fun and can encourage healthy physical activity. Under the right conditions (those that genuinely subordinate winning to simply taking part), sport can also build self-esteem, resilience, confidence and social skills. But very often the conditions are not “right” and competition turns out to be psychologically and socially detrimental.

In his polemical book, No Contest, Alfie Kohn draws on hundreds of studies to make a powerful case against competition in all areas of life. He argues that our struggle to defeat each other — at work, at school, at play, and at home — turns all of us into losers.angry-sports-parent-2

There is no such thing as “healthy competition”, he says, because competition always means that one person can succeed only if others fail. The consequences of this include:

  • feelings of self-worth become dependent on external evaluation – personal value is defined in terms of wins and losses;
  • children learn that it isn’t enough to be good or to do one’s best – they must triumph over others;
  • others are seen as obstacles to success – a sure recipe for hostility;
  • winners are envied, losers are looked down on;
  • the development of trust, co-operation, empathy and generosity is undermined;
  • learning is impeded because of heightened anxiety, reduced concentration, restricted learning from others and a preoccupation with extrinsic (e.g., rewards) rather than intrinsic (e.g., interest and satisfaction) outcomes

Kohn is not suggesting that children shouldn’t learn discipline and tenacity, that they shouldn’t be encouraged to succeed or even be exposed to failure. But none of these requires winning and losing — that is, having to beat other children and worry about being beaten. When classrooms and playing fields are based on cooperation rather than competition, children feel better about themselves. They work with others instead of against them, and their self-esteem doesn’t depend on winning a spelling bee or a game of rugby league. Even if Kohn may be overstating the case, there is a great deal in what he says.

One of the great advantages of nature play over sport – which increasingly passes for play in our society – is that it calls for co-operation rather than competition. It is the form of play that Fred O Donaldson calls “original play” – “original” because it is displayed by all species as a powerful means of communicating love, trust and belonging.

Even at its best, sport is competitive and divisive, leading almost inevitably to tribal behaviour – them and us, home team and opposition, winners and losers. Original play is completely different. It is the opposite of “them and us”. Original play involves just “us” – us together, not competing but co-operating, us sharing equally in the rewards of an experience and us accepting one another unconditionally and not for what we can contribute to winning.

Play in nature – whether it is the free play of children or the more structured nature activities that adults prefer – is very largely original play. No competition is involved in collecting firewood with your mates or looking for an easy route through a cliff line or cooling your feet in a creek. The people with you are simply companions in an enterprise that requires nothing more than a willingness and an ability to join in – for the sake of the activity itself.

DSC00581bu Negotiating the pool at the end of the Chasm

I accept that original play will never replace competitive sport in our society and I am not saying that it should (after all I am a competitive rower). But what I would like to see is a great deal more value being given to, and much more time being spent in, nature play. Anything that counters the divisive forces that permeate our culture has to be taken seriously – and sharing nature experiences with others is certainly one of those things.

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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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