What does ‘outside’ mean to you?
Take a few seconds to remember your favourite place or experience as a child...
Did you have a special place?
Why was it so special?
What did it look like?
How did it smell?
What could you hear?
How did this place make you feel?
This is a thought that has been posed to me many times over the years and each time the same memories ring out stronger than all the rest.
Recently, when I revisited this question, a group of us sat and reminisced about ‘the good old days’. We told stories, laughed and bonded over our fondest memories. We began to ponder - What made these occasions and places so special? And what did these childhood experiences have in common with each other?
Although each of us had a very different childhood our individual memories held very distinct similarities. We recognised that each of the accounts were based or influenced by nature and the outdoors. Places where we belonged, our own worlds with out the logic or influence of adults. A realm of freedom where the possibilities were endless.
Whether it was a visit to grandpas farm, discovering creatures by the stream, collecting treasures along the beach, or walks around the lake; these things were significant enough to remember and bring us joy. These places were ungoverned and untouched, unrestrained, progressive and enticing. There may have been a few dubious moments and it may have been a little bit risky but that’s where our childhood adventures took place.
One of my favourite books as a child was ‘Sallys Secret’ written by Shirley Hughes. A story about a young girl that used to set up tea parties, make hunts, dress up and play “pretend”. She got frustrated at times when the "grown ups" would put all her things away but one day she discovered her own secret garden outside. A place that was just hers, that she could arrange in which ever way she wished and leave. A place where she could choose to be alone or with others. A place where the only boundary was the limit to her imagination.
Children learn best through exploration and discovery. Through having the freedom not only to run and shout, but also to interact with and manipulate the environment. Children have a love for secret places. Places to catch bugs, build huts, make roads, mix potions, set up camp fires and play games of hide-and-go-seek. Spaces where they can transform what they have into anything imaginable. A place where fairy tales and mythical creature still exist.
“Children have a unique, direct and experiential way of knowing the natural world as a place of beauty, mystery and wonder. Children's special affinity for the natural environment is connected to the child's development and his or her way of knowing.”
Edward O. Wilson.
Thousands of possibilities were once offered for children to explore and discover. Children used to have access to the world, the streets, footpaths, empty sections and parks. To fields, forests, streams and gardens. Children could interact with the natural world without restraint or supervision. The lives of children today are very different, with fewer opportunities to have these experiences for various reasons. Time, space, supervision, finance, occupation, health, safety and location. Which ever the reason children's lives have become structured and scheduled by adults in a culture of protection and precaution. Children need opportunities to learn about risks and determine their own capabilities.
“Children are aware of how steep a slope must be to be able to slide down, and they explore different ways of sliding down according to their fear and ability. When climbing, they find their own ways up, fitting their strength, height and skills to the task. They intuitively examine what nature affords them, and they stop climbing when it becomes too dangerous for them.”
Karen Marie Eid Kaarby
We have accepted that times have changed and that the world has become alot busier and more dangerous for our children. In my opinion communities need to voice the need and desire for safer streets with lower speed-limits and less traffic. Safe public spaces where children are free to roam and areas of untouched wilderness. There needs to be a balance between protection and the need for children to have access to a natural environment that stimulates and challenges them or to have these places provided specifically for them.
A static playground or jungle gym is incredibly limited in comparison to the natural world where children have the ability to dig a trench in the sand, construct a rock dam, engineer a bridge over a stream or build a knights castle in a tree. Natural elements provide for open-ended play that emphasise unstructured creative exploration with diverse materials.
“The high levels of complexity and variety nature offers invites longer and more complex play. Because of their interactive properties, plants stimulate discovery, dramatic pretend play, and imagination. Plants speak to all of the senses, so it's not surprising that children are closely attuned to environments with vegetation. Plants, in a pleasant environment with a mix of sun, shade, colour, texture, fragrance, and softness of enclosure also encourage a sense of peacefulness.”
Robin C. Moore
We need gardens and outdoor areas where children can be free. Spaces with mounds, ditches, logs, fallen trees, boulders, bushes, wild flowers and dirt. Places just like the wild spaces of our childhood memories. Outdoor play requires space, sand, water, and dirt. Manipulative's, props and materials. Naturally found objects and loose parts which can be used to invent and create. And the tools to construct whatever their heart desires.
“All the manufactured equipment and all the indoor instructional materials produced by the best educators in the world cannot substitute for the primary experience of hands-on engagement with nature. They cannot replace the sensory moment where a child's attention is captured by the phenomena and materials of nature: the dappled sparkle of sunlight through leaves, the sound and motion of plants in the wind, the sight of butterflies or a colony of ants, the imaginative worlds of a square yard of dirt or sand, the endless sensory experience of water, the infinite space in an iris flower.”
Robin C. Moore
“How can we set our children free again?”
We need to start with the space in which children are each day; the home, centre and school. It is unfortunate that children can't design their own outdoor play environments - but then again, why can’t they?
Children need boundless space that provokes a sense of wonder, provides opportunities for “REAL PLAY” and supports meaningful encounters with nature.