WILD PLAY: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors, by David Sobel
(published by Sierra Club Books, April 2011):
Just as native plants are endangered and traditional cultures become globalized, a childhood of outdoor play is fading away. Outdoor play is like the forest that gets cut down lot by lot for the new housing development. Each new home is only a small incursion. It’s hard to object to just one more house, but bit by bit, the roamable woods transmute to Kentucky bluegrass.
The magic and mystery of the deep forest, with its fantastical inhabitants, was once part of actual childhood experience, but more and more it’s relegated to storybooks or is experienced online. Think of Tinker Bell after she drinks the poison intended for Peter. Her twinkle dims, her bell loses its lilt. Do we still believe in fairies? Well, I’ll stick my neck out and say, yes, I believe in fairies and stories and certain kinds of magic, in treasure hunts and secret paths into the woods.
Childhood needs to be spacious enough for outdoor play to take on a prominent role. And not just because such play is fun but because it’s biologically adaptive. Just as bobcat kittens play to develop the necessary physical dexterity for hunting, children play to develop their mental dexterity. Play helps children understand that the world is malleable, that their actions on the world can make a difference. A board isn’t just a board, it’s a plank to walk; it’s access to the first branch of the tree; it’s a jump for horses. Playing with natural materials in childhood prepares us for playing with ideas behind a desk. Playing multiple roles in a school dramatic production prepares us for the multiple roles of being a leader, a follower, a peacemaker, or a midwife’s assistant in our adult lives. Our parenting challenge is to resist the tide of overprotectiveness and provide opportunities for children to create their own play realities in backyards, neighborhoods, and urban green spaces.
In my own parenting, I have consciously sought to create and cultivate diverse forms of natural play with and for Tara and Eli. My consistent hope was that this would both foster mental dexterity and social adeptness, and forge an immutable bond between them and the natural world. Paul Shepard, in The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, describes the power of childhood experiences this way:
It’s no accident, nor is it the design of any particular culture, that ten is the golden age of childhood. It is at this time that all the child has worked for seems to come to fruition. He is an expert in play, in factual knowledge and the concrete. . . . Ten years is that landmark of the lost idyll, the subject of future nostalgia. The ten-year-old’s euphoria will imprint on his surroundings, drawing him back in adult years to the scenes of childhood.
If the child has enough euphoric outdoor experiences in childhood—experiences in which she feels merged, continuous, at one with the hedge she’s hidden in, the baby bird in her hands, the darkened pond—then her affinity for the natural world will never go away. And that affinity will become the soil in which an environmental ethic takes root.
One morning after dropping off Tara at high school, I took time for a walk around the pond on the school’s nature trail. The signposts were faded and tilting; beaver-felled birches crisscrossed the path. A barberry thicket had run rampant and completely obliterated most signs of a beaten path. Yet old bridges remained, and there were just enough clues left to make out the original intent. The trail was obscured but not completely forgotten.
That’s where we are now. We’ve still got the chance to give our children the life-shaping benefits of outdoor play. Before the tidal wave of electrons crashes on shore and obliterates all signs of biological life, let’s clear out the trails into the meadows and woods, unearth the vestiges of our natural play instincts, and brush off the accumulated dust.