Probably most of us have heard of nature deficit disorder. (I hope none of you have it!) I haven’t yet read Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder because my children have never been in danger of succumbing to this modern malady. I will probably get around to reading it one of these days simply because I think his ideas will resonate with much of what I think and feel about getting outside. It’s on my “to read” list.
Most of us have probably also read articles or heard radio pieces about how children don’t play very much because their lives are so organized and structured. This lack of play, researchers are “discovering” may contribute to all sorts of problems like hyperactivity, failure to develop the ability to self-regulate and develop executive function, poor physical health, obesity, and more. It sort of surprises me that I’ve heard so many pieces on the radio about play lately and that these items are “news”. I guess that’s because as a mother the fact that children need to play just seems intuitive to me. And that they need to do it outside also seems obvious. (Do you hear me saying, “Duh!”)
Long before organized sports, video games, the Internet and the current assault on childhood play, Charlotte Mason advocated play. She knew that children needed free time to go outside and play without adult guidance, structure, or intervention. She knew that it contributed to their mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being. She wrote, more than 100 years ago:
“They must be let alone, left to themselves a great deal, to take in what they can of the beauty of earth and heavens; for of the evils of modern education few are worse than this––that the perpetual cackle of his elders leaves the poor child not a moment of time, nor an inch of space, wherein to wonder––and grow…there is much to be got by perching in a tree or nestling in heather, but muscular development comes of more active ways, and an hour or two should be spent in vigorous play…”
(Home Education, p. 44).
I’m glad I became acquainted with her writing when my children were very young because it confirmed what I felt must be right. I remember reading her and continually saying, “Yes! Yes! Yes!”
After hearing a recent radio program completely devoted to the topic of play, I asked my kids to write for me some thoughts about memorable moments of play in their lives. I soon received a really wonderful email from my oldest son, Jonathan, who is now 22. You will see from what he wrote how vital the time playing, outside in nature was to him. I am quite sure that what he describes is a big part of why he is now such a creative, imaginative, smart, amazing young man. (Yes, I am bragging. Forgive me.)
Jonathan wrote, “I think my favorite memories of playing as a kid, or at least the thing that was most constant about playing as a kid, was the woods behind our house in Massachusetts. Not so much just as woods per se, but in that they became a landscape for me where I told stories and had adventures, sometimes in the actual places, to scale, but more often taking the relatively small woods and expanding them in size into a world as a whole, with countries and histories and wars that I would tell (To myself, never to anyone else, and almost never written down, so I don’t remember most of it). Rivers were oceans, rises in the land mountain ranges, the strip of un-forested land underneath the power lines a vast savanna, and the little rocky outcroppings in the middle of the Green River, great island nations. These places got named and re-named over and over again, I think mostly based on whatever I was reading at the time (If it was the Redwall books it was one thing, if it was Lord of the Rings it was something else, if it was Star Wars it was something else)…but I do remember that there were a few very involved story lines that went on for a long time, years, in fact, and that I’d go back to over and over again. Bits and pieces of these stories I used to tell to myself while I walked around in the woods ended up in stories that I wrote down, but most of it’s just gone now…and I can’t really remember specifics.
And then, of course, there was much more concrete playing out in the woods…climbing trees, swimming in the river…I especially used to love building dams across the river, again, sometimes with other people, a lot of times just by myself. I think I just loved the woods so much because no one was ever out there (If I ran into someone out there I’d usually hide until they went away), and so there was free rein for me to make them, and myself, whatever I wanted. They were my woods, and my imagination was liberated to fill them with adventures of the epic scale that I loved reading about.”
There is another connection here as well – the connection of reading with nature, and play. But that is a post for another time. For now, I encourage you. Let your children go outside. Let them play. Get out of the way. They do not need you to teach them how to play or tell them what to play. If you will leave them alone and let them go outside, amazing things will happen.