Playing with children in nature has been the source of plenty of mixed emotions for me. Mostly joy – as the children and I connect with our local natural environment and find so many ways to grow as individuals through these experiences. I can’t tell you how wonderful it is to note the personal growth that occurs over time through playing outside. Like nature itself, this can be a slow process of expansion: reaching, strengthening, greening, blossoming and fruiting … until finally we realise that something we couldn’t do (or didn’t want to do) months ago, is now second nature.
It is for all these reasons, and more, that time spent outside with children is at the core of my early childhood philosophy. Nature play needs patience, persistence and personal effort to move into a new zone of comfort, to explore and master new skills. Nature play needs to be defended with all these qualities too. It seems that nature play is still often considered an educational fad, and regarded with suspicion, even fear, by many parents and educators alike. Outside, especially in Australia (even suburban Australia) there are so many ways children can be hurt.
Outside, in the presence of unpredictable nature, with sticks, spiders and snakes and water, it is easy to forget that children can hurt themselves inside too, or that they are daily exposed to the biggest risk of all by being driven about in a car. When I talk about my work with others I am often told, “I love what you do, but …”
“I don’t know how you are allowed to do this!”
“what if ….?”
“you never know what will happen …”
“I think it is just too risky! You are very brave”
Believe me, these questions are always on my mind too. So it isn’t a surprise that when I am spotted down by the river (or in it) with my group of Numala Kinder jarjums, or playing with sticks in the park, or bushwalking along the river bank, or sliding down the big grassy hill, I feel a new kind of guilt.
I think of it as Nature Guilt.
Nature Guilt works two ways for me – I feel hyper-aware that I am taking children to a zone of so many possible risks. I don’t think twice about these activities when I am with my own children, but when I am working with other people’s children, I feel guilty about the risk – when they see me standing under a tree looking up at the small bodies in the branches, or using tools like saws to build things in scrubby bushes (clearly “snake-infested”!) I have to control the urge to gather everyone up, put away the tools, and take them home where they will (apparently) be safer. All the what-ifs and you-never-knows, and its-too-risky and the you-are-very-braves start running through my mind. I have to remind myself that I’ve given it some thought already.
As an educator, I have considered all the what-ifs, and I’m very aware that there are some you-never-knows. I don’t leave Numala Kinder without being armed with a swathe of benefit-risk assessments, parental permission forms, emergency contact details and a back-pack full of first aid supplies. I hate having to do it this way, but the preparation and paperwork is also my support.
After the first wash of Nature Guilt, comes the second wave: the guilty pleasure that we are able to enjoy time in nature with each other. That we are able to be here and now, just playing. Together. Not ticking things off lists, not trying to justify our ‘learning’, not thinking about what else needs to be done. Making our own fun outside, making our own discoveries – about our world, and ourselves. Not worrying too much about anything. Which of course is the whole point. Educational and personal benefits aside, our natural world should be appreciated and enjoyed and experienced for its own sake, because we are a part of it and because we NEED nature, as much as it needs us to be its advocate too.
Being brave has nothing to do with it – but being passionate, professional and practical about children’s right to play in nature does. Nature play involves building respectful agreements with children, families and professionals. It involves defining boundaries, discussing risk, watching for hazards, practicing self-management and balancing sensible, (and legal) requirements with the joyful unpredictability of children in wildspace. It involves trust. It involves finding a space where these factors can meet and work together.
Unfortunately, in early childhood, one does not simply “play outside”.
There’s a lot to consider, for sure, but we have such a good time together outside. We shouldn’t be afraid of stepping out the door and getting to know our own country. Embrace the guilty pleasure of nature play.
Numala nabei, numala jarra (Yugambeh language) – Embrace play, embrace country
Jennifer McCormack offers professional development for early childhood services to encourage critical thinking and skills for practical approaches to a variety of arts-based and playful topics. Jennifer if also available for conferences and special events. See the PROFESSIONAL DEVELOPMENT page for details.