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The value of self directed play

I’m taking a course on the human nature connection and I thought I would publish some of the reflection papers that I’ve been writing.  These are a bit more academic than what I normally post, but I thought they were worth sharing.

Last summer, I watched as my five year-old son climbed high in the branches of the only climbable tree in our local park.  There is a built playground in the park, but he has been drawn to this tree for the past two summers and has finally learned how to climb it.  After he had been playing in the tree for about an hour, a local grandparent brought her grandkids to the park and started organizing the kids in to games.  Within ten minutes, my son asked to go home.  Play, organized by adults, wasn’t as much fun as using his imagination.

This shouldn’t have surprised me; children are often more responsive to self-directed play than they are to structured programming. It’s worth noting that there were a number of other reasons why her type of play wasn’t as fun.  My son had picked a part of the park that matched the preferences of children his age.  He had shelter under a tree and the freedom to explore within that shelter but he was also able to see me outside of that area.  By choosing this area to play, he was following the preferences that evolution has created in his brain (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002).  In the little thicket that he had chosen to play in, he was safe from weather and predators.  He was able to see me in case he needed help and he was exploring nature on his own terms in a place where he felt safe.  Children have always played in places like this and it would have been extraordinary for him to have done any differently (Wilson, 1993).

Child in tree

What is extraordinary is the reaction that humans have taken as we have moved from a rural to a primarily urbanized society.  Not only have we over programmed our children, reducing the chances that they will be able to explore nature on their own terms, we have begun the process of actively discouraging play.  In many jurisdictions, children are not allowed to play in the trees or build forts out of a misguided fear of liability (Louv, 2005).  We have scheduled structured activities for our children at the cost of virtually any unstructured free time (Honoré, 2008) and we have declared that a simple trip without direct parental supervision by a nine year old qualifies as child neglect (Skenazy, 2010).  We have made a crucial error in our evaluation of childhood; we have decided that children need to be protected by adults and, if we can’t protect them directly, they will be safer indoors.

Furthermore, as a result of our disconnection with nature, we have tried to replace actual nature with television documentaries and photos.  We have created an industry around programs for children that feature strong nature themes and lessons.  While these programs have much to teach young people about the world around them, studies have shown that the sort of “virtual nature” does not have the same impact as actual nature (Kahn, 2012).

As educators, we need to pay attention to these lessons and act accordingly.  We know that a vital skill for the next generation will be the ability to adapt to situations as they arise (Henderson, 2008).  As such, we should be encouraging behaviors that encourage creativity.  One way to do so is encouraging play in the outdoors and it encourages creativity, stress reduction and an increase in self-esteem (Heerwagen and Orians, 2002).  We need to understand that purchasing the latest colourful post and platform playground from a catalogue may actually discourage play in the outdoors.   Recent research has found that a child who is left to his or her own devices in a natural environment will play for an average of one hour and eight minutes.  That number drops dramatically to eighteen minutes when a standard playground is introduced (Standing Committee on the Environment and Sustainable Development, 2012).  As we design spaces for children to play in, we need to be very careful that we do not destroy the very things that will encourage unstructured play.

I do not believe that modern society has eradicated the connection between children and nature.  Children have an innate connection and desire to interact with nature (Wilson, 1993).  We need to create and encourage opportunities for young people to increase their connection with this natural world.  Perhaps the best measure for any of our decisions is the measure proposed by Kahn for the use of technology: by doing something, will people get outdoors more than if we had done nothing (Kahn, 2012)?  If we cannot meet that measure, we must carefully reconsider our actions.


Canada. Parliament. House of Commons. Standing Committee on the environment and sustainable development. (2012). Evidence. Meeting 47, October 22nd. 41st Parliament, 1st Session. Available:

Heerwagen, J. H., & Orians, G. H. (2002). The ecological world of children. In P. H. Kahn & S. R. Kellert (Eds.), Children and Nature. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

Henderson, J. (2008). Developing students’ creative skills for 21st century success. Education Update, 50(12), Retrieved from’-Creative-Skills-for-21st-Century-Success.aspx

Honoré, C. (2008). Under Pressure: Rescuing childhood from the culture of hyper-parenting. Toronto, Ontario: Alfred A. Knopf Canada.

Kahn, P. H. (2012). Wild-technology. Ecopsychology, 4(3), 237-243. doi: 10.1089/eco.2012.0004

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the wood: Saving our children from nature deficit disorder. (1st ed.). Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Alqonquin Books of Chapel Hill.

Skenazy, L. (2010). Free range kids. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.

Wilson, E. O. (1993). Biophilia and the conservation ethic. In S. R. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The biophilia hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press.

Winter fun

I spent the weekend with some friends in a little cabin in the woods and our kids. We snowshoed around the property, looking at pine cones and checking out the local birds. We saw lots of deer tracks and the places where they bedded down, but none in person.

We were using rented MSR snowshoes that we picked up from University of Calgary Outdoor Cente. I’m a big fan of their gear rental service – it’s a great way to get in to the outdoors without spending a lot of money. For families without a stockpile of camping gear like I have, it’s a great opportunity to try something new and to try before you buy.20140209_101534

I also had the chance to try something new. A friend brought along a snow saw and we spent hours cutting snow blocks that the kids used to make an incredibly cool fort. The walls were at least four feet tall and the kids had fun running in and out, even making the occasional snowball to throw mout. Mostly, they perfected the fort. Next time, we will build a campfire in front to reflect heat so that I can enjoy sitting and reading while the kids played. I’m told that the best snow for cutting blocks is from drifted snow – they’re the most solid.

Nothing like a well built snow fort!

One word of caution – keep a close eye on the kids. Children have been buried over the years in snow forts, sometimes with tragic results. We never dig quinzees for them to play in. It’s just a bit too risky.

Very few things better than playing in the snow for a few days in the winter. We’re looking forward to our next time out!


My family spent a good deal of our spring vacation (yes, I wrote this a while back and am only getting around to posting it, sorry) on Vancouver Island and every day we visited a beach.

Beaches are magical places.. You can roll back rocks, you can build forts out of driftwood and you can explore tide pools at low tide.  So much ocean nature is evident when the tide goes out.

Our friend Paul, a biology teacher, taught us that you should only flip back rocks the are smaller than the size of your head. That way you don’t hurt what’s underneath.  He showed us pisaster starfish (they’re purple), baby eels and crabs.  It was amazing!  My son keeps telling people that he’s seen an eel (and, six months later, he’s still doing it!).

He also loved getting his feet stuck in the mud on Parksville beach, wiggling in the soft mud up to his ankles and playing with a kite that our friend Tim was flying.

I think that thing that made this so special is that we did these activities together.  As the Child and Nature alliance has been saying over the past year “if you want kids to get in to nature, take them outside.”  Kids learn by example and, if you show them that you like being outside with them, so will they!

Not a day goes by when my son won’t ask me to take him outside.  We’ve tried to make the indoors boring and the outdoors exciting.  We can have fun in the backyard, in the forest, in the local park and, sometimes, even on a beach!  Nature is everywhere and, together, we make it fun.

A video for you to check out

Last week was the Children and Nature network’s Grassroots Gathering.  One of the keynotes was Claire Warden.  Here is a link to her talk – it’s great!

Slowing down

When I was in my early 20s I spent a couple of summer helping young people experience the wonder of nature by canoe.  We would spend 10 days travelling by our own power, at a slow pace, covering only fifty of one hundred miles.  We really explored and disconnected from the world.

I got to thinking about that because, as I wrote this, I was travelling on a plane flying over the area when I used to paddle.  It’s amazing that, over a decade later, I can still make out the lakes and the rivers that I explored those summers during the late 90s.  Artery lake stands out as a cross on the Bloodvein River, Aikens lake, with it’s crater at the source of the Gammon.  I couldn’t make out Scout lake or “Bing’s Death Swamp” but I know they’re down there.

During those summers, we didn’t have cell phones or email at the base camp.  Landline telephone service was limited, so we wrote a lot of paper letters.  Life was very slow.  I got excited to even see another person and would spend time getting to know the little details of their lives over the past week on the trail and crossing paths with another canoe trip was amazing.

With that kind of slow life, you really connected with the people around you.  You created a tight knit community.  You learned about each other and enjoyed each other’s company.  You could do that because you slowed down and paid attention to the little things in life.

We used to occasionally see planes overhead.  We even had radios to contact them if there was an emergency.  I used to really resent seeing them – they represented the outside world.  I couldn’t imagine that one day I would be flying on one of them, looking down at the landscape that had become a part of me in the past.

If we are to connect more people with nature we need to slow down and remember that we need to create community. We need to know our neighbours.  We need to trust each other.  If we’re able to do that we will be able to spend time going for walks in the woods.  We’ll be able to let our kids play with each other and we’ll be able to let them explore without our intervention.

We need to have the courage to know on our neighbours doors, to say hello and to sit in the park.  We also have to have the courage to slow down and take the time to really get to know each other.


There is a certain power of spending time in natural light. Seasonal affective disorder is well documented and is thought be caused in part by a lack of natural light during the winter months.

It’s not a terrible stretch to think that our moods could improve if we just spent a bit of time during each day outdoors in the natural light. I know it certainly works for me. If I spend just a few minutes outdoors in the sunshine, it will put me in a better mood and I will feel noticeably more alert.

Beyond that, we now know that the blue light of sunshine has a particular effect on eye health and may be one of the reasons why we are seeing more nearsighted children. The indoors may be hurting our children’s eyes.

I’m not going to say that, for kids with depression and genetic eye damage that the outdoors will cure them but we don’t want to cause damage by keeping kids indoors.

Remember that something as simple as a walk at lunchtime will get you out and you will have the added benefit of getting a bit of exercise, something we can all use.

So get out and enjoy the sunshine and let’s see all of our moods improve just a little bit.


I was in a conversation yesterday when someone asked me a tough question. If I could do one thing to get more teenagers into our outdoor based program, what would it be? That’s a very tough question because there isn’t one single silver bullet. Teenagers have a very good lie detector built in and want to get what you tell them they’re going to get. They want adventure. They crave risk. These are the things that have moved humans, as a species, forward. The risk part literally saved humanity during the ice age, when some teenagers said to their parents, see you later old guys, we’re getting on the ice floe to look for new adventures elsewhere. Those are all important things, but they weren’t what I settled on – I settled on trust and doing things with their friends.

Teenagers want to be trusted and they want to do things with their friends. More importantly, they can be trusted to do things with their friends. If we want to get more teenagers through the doors, we need to create opportunities for them to do these things.

The organization that I work for has a provision for older youth (11 – 14 year olds) to camp without adult supervision. I did that when I was that age. We set up duty rosters, we bought and cooked our own food and we learned from our mistakes (at age 14, I had a love of Cajun seasoning, my friends didn’t). Most importantly, we didn’t get in to trouble.

When I was 16, I joined the older program and, although all the camps we wanted to go to required an adult advisor to be present, we didn’t have one available most of the time. We would recruit an adult from one of the other groups to take responsibility for us and we would camp without adult supervision. We camped this way for thirty or fourth days out of each year, in all seasons. We never got in to trouble and most people thought that one of us was a young looking adult, but they could never quite figure out which one of us it was. We never got into trouble and our group grew from six the first year to thirty in the next.

These sort of opportunities seem to have disappeared in the 21st century. We think that our world is too dangerous (it isn’t) and that our teenagers can’t be trusted to do the right thing (they can) to allow this sort of thing to happen. We need to recreate opportunities that allow teenagers to learn how to do things without adult supervision, be trusted to do so for extended periods of time and know that they will do the right thing. Those sorts of experiences made me the man that I am today. People trusted me to do the right thing. We can trust today’s teenagers to do the same and, if we allow them to do so, we will build the next generation of community leaders and nature lovers.