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Letting kids run wild in the bush

by Marius Hardut last modified Nov 21, 2014 08:21 AM
a blog post i like very much from out friends at BEE GEE's and I believe is the direction we need to go with our educational programs http://thebeegees.net.au/?p=227

The other day I came across an excellent post at slate.com entitled Let Kids Run Wild in the Woods.

The post tells how a former ranger in the US National Parks Service, Matthew Browning, had a moment of clarity when he witnessed a colleague deliver the usual speech to a child about not touching or taking things they had found in the park.  Witnessing this conversation had Browning develop a real sense of concern about the emotional response the child was having to that situation and about the implications for his future connectivity with the natural world.  Browning realised that even visits to national parks were structured events, full of ‘don’t’ rules – don’t touch, don’t climb, don’t go off trail, don’t move things, don’t pick things, don’t run, don’t yell…

Behind these rules appear to be real concerns about protecting threatened or rare species and sensitive ecosystems, as well as the fear of encountering potentially dangerous wildlife or being exposed to possibly life threatening situations.  In a country the size of the US or Australia, where there are thousands of hectares of remote wilderness to get lost in and animals such as bears, coyotes, mountain lions, snakes, spiders, crocodiles and of course drop bears, it’s no surprise that authorities have been striving to implement some measure of control over human activities in these areas.

Yet at what cost?

As Browning noted, the importance of unstructured wild play in nature promotes within us a sense of connection, respect and yes, empathy, with the natural world.  We are more likely to appreciate and protect the environment as adults if we’re allowed to experience and enjoy it as children.

Amongst the natural play movement there are increasing attempts to remove manufactured play equipment and introduce more natural materials that give children the chance to explore, learn and feel that connection.  In fact, we’re working on plans to have such an area installed at Birdsland Reserve.

But what of wild completely unstructured play?  What of just getting out there and following animal trails like we did as kids?  Scrambling down creek banks to splash across them?  Clambering along fallen logs… climbing wonderfully twisted trees that just beg you to go higher?

In Australia we are blessed with the fact that wild nature is never far from our homes yet many parents, schools and organisations that have some responsibility for or involvement with children’s lives, just don’t know where to start.

It’s hard to get over that obstacle and convince them that they don’t need to ‘make a start’ – they just need to allow kids to be.

It’s hard because the authorities that control our parks and wild areas are reluctant to allow any sort of play that could cost them money – whether in repairing ‘damage’, insurance claims or the dreaded legal action.

It’s hard because as parents many of us have been conditioned into being risk adverse.  Into danger avoidance.  We allow our concerns and fear to determine what is acceptable ‘play’ and that means that anything which could be remotely considered ‘wild’ is looked upon with trepidation at best.

It’s hard but it’s not impossible.  Why?

Because if we just let the children be children then they will show us the way.

Warning - keep your children under surveillance

Keeping an eye out is no longer enough for some local authorities

Authorities instead of putting up fences and signs stating ‘Danger – Keep Out’ when they come across muddy trails along creek banks from exploring children, should instead embrace the path that they’ve been shown.  Take advantage of the insight you’ve been given and work with it to encourage that sense of adventure and wild play rather than stifling it.  By doing so you can do what is necessary to reduce the big hazards where the highest likelihood of significant injury exists, whilst accepting that children need to be allowed to make their own risk assessment decisions.

Is the fact that the bank is eroded and kids are likely to slip and fall in really that huge a deal?  Well, if it was a long, rocky way down onto rocks or a deep creek where there was no way out, then maybe you should be doing something to reduce erosion at that point and provide a way out for unfortunate animals and human anyway?  Whilst you do, put up some child friendly signs telling them what to look out for at that point and make it a feature of the trail.

If it’s a short slip into shallow water where the children can easily splash their way back out again, then the worst that will happen is they’ll get wet and muddy.  Balance that with the sensory and educational experience they will get, the opportunity to see their surrounds from an entirely different perspective and get up close and personal with the natural world…  The benefits vastly outweigh the very small risk of injury.

Within an hour of this tree falling, it became part of the children's play

Within an hour of this tree falling, it became part of the children’s play

Next time you are out with your own children in Birdsland Reserve and they run to the log across the creek and look back at you for approval, give it.  Just grin and let them decide how to proceed.  If they get too close to the creek and look like they’ll fall in, let them.  So what if they get wet and muddy, so what if it frightens them a little.  You will be right there if they need you.  If they want to scramble over the large boulders  pretending to be mountain climbers and jump into the long grass as if they were jumping from a aero-plane, cheer and say “Wow, that looked like fun!”.

Then have a turn!

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