I grow more and more convinced in my work with young children of their need for wildness: prolonged, unstructured time for children to have direct contact with the undomesticated outdoors. It is there that children find seclusion to dream, plot, or meander, unfettered by pressures to be, preform, or hurry. In the wild, children test their physical abilities on grounding that isn’t level or a tree with branches low enough to climb. Wildness challenges groupings of children to negotiate and solve problems without imposed human-made boundaries like the approved fall surface that delineate where children can and cannot play at a park playground.
Increasingly, a child’s contact with nature is tamed and protected. Time outside is spent playing organized activities, visiting safety-approved play structures, or frolicking in fenced-in backyards. Wildness offers something unique that cannot be found in human-created spaces.
Tom Mullarkey, chief executive of the Royal Society of the Prevention of Accidents in the United Kingdom says that children should be “As safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.” This is a guiding principle of my program. I have written at length about the critical role of risk-taking in a child’s young years, and devoted a great deal of professional reading to the idea of childhood “wildness.” I am driven to find areas that meet this need in developing children.
There is a space a short walk from our house that the crew and I call “The Wild Dens.” It is a narrow swath of unoccupied land between a stretch of houses and a creek. Overgrown on the creek side with dense shrubbery, the trees and bushes create natural climbing and hiding spaces. We frequent the wild dens, and have enjoyed watching the transformation with the seasons.
There are a few notable characteristics of quality play in wild spaces. (Adapted from Gaye Gronlund’s list of characteristics for high quality play in Developmentally Appropriate Play)
1. Children engage for long periods of time without prompting
2. Children test (and retest) their physical skills through repeated behaviors, like climbing the same tree and jumping down over and over.
3. Children need few supports and interventions from adults to sustain play
4. Children flow easily in and out of play with complex themes and story lines, adapting the structure as necessary to accommodate new peers or materials.
In this video, the children are seen incorporating natural elements to further their play. Everything captured originated organically from the children’s imaginations. Particularly interesting to me is the way children incorporate the desires of fellow playmates, as seen in the final clip where not every child shares the same vision for carrying the branch in the snow.
Do the children in your lives have wild spaces they can explore?