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Stop Making a Mess and Go PLAY!

I’ve always been interested in outdoor opportunities for children. I enjoyed outdoor play so much as a child, from the swing set to climbing trees, riding my bike to swimming, walking in the woods to rowing a boat across the lake. When I was 5 years old my family began camping every weekend all summer long at a primitive campground - you know, the kind where you pump the water out of a well, utilize the outhouse, scavenge for firewood to cook your food. All these experiences and more I wanted for my own children. I have wanted these experiences of joy and wonder for the hundreds of children I have served daily for over 35 years during my career in early childhood education.

But it seems that children are not outside as much today as I was as a child. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, describes it as a “nature deficit.” I believe it’s we who’ve changed, not the children. They still want to be outdoors! But we say things like, “Don’t get dirty, don’t go out of sight, be careful, don’t go out of the yard, don’t waste time!” And it seems that assessors and legislators and attorneys want to sanitize dirt and regulate Mother Nature to the point that we’re not even sure we should send children outdoors.

NONE of us wants a child to be hurt!! But how seriously dangerous is rough tree bark, and wouldn’t it be advantageous for a child to learn the physical skills needed to navigate over rough terrain and tree roots while they are still close to the ground?

One of the best examples of all of this confusion happened to me a few years ago when I was camping at a state park. There was a wonderful low spot between two rows of campsites that met at a culvert that went under the road to drain the rain water away. Its sloppy, muddy goodness beckoned to the children whose tent sites bordered the area. They poked with sticks, took off their shoes, threw little pebbles into the puddled parts, and played for 30 minutes or more...until the parents yelled over to them to “stop making a mess” and “go play — on the playground!”, which was of course, one of those metal and plastic all-in-one wonders.

(Here’s a side bar question - isn’t it a curiosity that we feel the need to build playgrounds at campgrounds? And if we do, what should they look like?)

Anyway, so the children unhappily and reluctantly left the wet grass and dirt and slowly moved toward the playground. It was bordered by a split rail fence. A couple of the children climbed up on the fence. One sat on a rail, another laid across one. The parents shouted across the street. “Go play!” They got a little closer. One got onto the equipment, but for the most part the joyful play and experimentation had been killed. There was nothing new here, nothing they hadn’t seen or done before. It just wasn’t interesting and engaging. They slowly departed and made their way back to their campsites. One or two ventured back to the ditch and played a little longer until discovered by their parents. And finally, that was the end of that.

I thought, how sad. Here are families who are out camping, who obviously enjoy being outdoors and immersed in nature and want to share that with their children. But they still missed the value and possibilities of allowing the sticks and dirt and grass and rocks to become their children’s play-ground, their learning laboratory, or saw the learning going on in NATURE’S Classroom. They missed the engagement, focus, and absorption that was happening. They didn’t notice the social skills that were being built as the children took turns demonstrating their ideas for exploring the ditch, that they were inclusive in their play despite the variety of ages of the children attracted to the ditch, how they were engaging in problem-solving together. The parents didn’t see the kinesthetic skills the children were developing like their awareness of their bodies in space and with other objects and people, how they were creating and manipulating tools, or how they were testing their physical limits. Their language skills were increasing through conversation and story telling. They were giving instructions and sharing their ideas. They were learning about critters and their habitats first hand and developing their close observation skills. They speculated and hypothesized and tested their hypotheses. The parents did not see the learning that was disguised as making a mess.

So I took these observations back to my own preschool and asked myself a bunch of questions. Where were the experimentation, limit-testing, useful risk assessing, and physical challenges I knew the children craved and deserved? Where were the up close and personal opportunities with plants and rocks, and, heaven forbid, sticks? I wanted the children to try, to persevere, to come up with creative solutions to their problems. I wanted the children to jump and hike and do heavy lifting. I wanted them to find little places where they could rest and peek-out-of and sit-under — places where their very souls could be nurtured. I wanted little trickles of water to be at the ready, and logs, and rocks, and sand and dirt. And I never wanted to hear myself say “stop making a mess and go play!”

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