Into the Woods

I must be easily amazed, credulous, or naive because things happen in the classroom all the time that leave me gobsmacked.  Children are an endless source of surprise and amazement and, while there are themes and strands of inquiry that come up over and over again, the children’s focus, insight, and intelligence continue to astonish me.

We are still visiting the green space every day during our outdoor inquiry time.  As soon as my feet hit the gravel, children run up and ask me if they can go in the forest.  The space probably measures 4 metres deep by 60 metres wide; it’s a long narrow strip.  You wouldn’t think that there would be enough in there to sustain their attention over the course of weeks but there is no sign of them becoming bored.  They are eager to explore it every single day and pay close attention to how it changes.  Their engagement is, for me, in stark contrast to how children behave around traditional play structures.  There is always a lot of behaviour management in the playground.

  • Don’t climb on the outside of the structure.
  • Don’t climb up the slide.
  • You can’t do that in rubber boots.
  • Slide down feet first.
  • Stay out of the mud.
  • Don’t play in the puddles.

It often feels that we spend most of our time on the playground saying no.

In the bush, it’s very different.

child exploring in the snow
Walking in the snow

FI says he likes the bush area “because all my friends are there and I like to play there because it’s mushy and there’s berries. It feels good to go there. Cause I didn’t get to go there last year.  I wasn’t allowed – only the big kids could go there – now I can.”

MK says “Cause there’s lots of sticks. You can break them off their tree. You can pick up leaves. Play in the puddles and with the leaves.”

BI says “Cause it’s fun – I like to go back and forth. I feel fun.”

TB says “Because I like where the corn grows in the field.”

Some of the most interesting comments were about the kind of play the children engage in outside.

XC says “we can play any way we want.”

LH says “It’s fun because there’s nothing there.”

ON says “Because there’s a pole and a slide.”

DSCF4713 DSCF4714

It’s not that we’re specifically instructing them on how to play in the playground area (although we are telling them what not to do) but somehow they perceive that there’s an agenda.  They understand that their play is being managed in ways that detract from their enjoyment and they’d prefer to be somewhere freer. I wonder about how much money we’re spending on playground equipment and whether we’d be better off just letting the grass grow high and the trees grow back.  What would change about the quality of children’s play and social interaction if all of the “don’ts” were taken away?

For instance, our children have spent an enormous amount of time carrying a huge tree branch around the schoolyard.   It’s a challenge that doesn’t loose its appeal.  How do you balance the branch?  How many children do you need to carry it?  Do we stand on both sides or all on the same side?  Endless fascination, endless engagement, endless amusement.

children carrying a branch
Heave ho!

They recently found a log in the green space.  It may have been part of someone’s retaining wall at one point.  Now it’s a teeter totter.

using a log as a teeter totter balanced on a rock

Another day it’s a bridge…

walking across a puddle using a log

All of this fascinating play happens outside the realm of adults, in kid land.  I’d like to see what would happen if we allowed kid land to expand a little, if we gave it more space, permission and time.  In her 2008 paper “Meddler In the Middle” published in the journal Innovations in Education and Teaching International, Erica McWilliams proposes “less time spent being a custodial risk minimiser and more time spent being an experimenter and risktaker” (vol 45, no 3, p.265).  I think that this idea is particularly applicable to the outdoor context and I wonder what it’s going to take to get us there.


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