Updated: Mar 5, 2021
Chances are your children already know the best Wild Nature Play locations around your home. They gravitate towards them as if by siren song. They have given the spot a name, claimed it as their fort or castle, decorated it with found objects, and created a system of laws and fairness. They have turned these places into distant lands and embarked on grand adventures that would have given Teddy Roosevelt pause*. It is likely you pass by these locations on your way to work or the store and never notice all that unfolds in these sacred places. At least this is my hope. However, this may not be the reality in the neighborhood after all.
Do you remember the best spots around your childhood home? What was it that made them so special? If I were to guess it was full of plant coverage creating places to hide, trees to climb, and down branches to break and stack. Perhaps there were rocks to throw and a stream that was at times a raging river or a barren desert. Likely there were other kids to join in alliance with or guard against a raid depending on the day. I bet you found objects left behind from a stranger never seen that you put to use far more creatively than the original intent. Odds are this is a place you had many firsts as well. The first decision made independent of adult input and the opportunity to take responsibility for oneself, the first sleepover without the safety of a solid roof, or maybe the first kiss from your crush down the street. What secrets does your place share with you and you alone? [See a map of my special childhood memories]
If the special places of your memory are in any way similar to this than I am also fairly certain you did not immediately think of a fenced-in playground devoid of natural shade, rough edges, and character. I bet the sounds of your parent’s cautious voices were not a part of the scene. I bet you climbed higher, dug deeper, avoided more danger, and got dirtier than any playground inspector would allow today. Perhaps the freedom to explore made you feel capable of taking care of yourself just as your children are capable of taking care of themselves if given the opportunity. Who might we be today if all our challenges were wiped clean by well-meaning caregivers and community?
I am under no illusion that the state of caution we raise our children in is going to collectively loosen. I also believe much of the growth in equity, inclusion, and safety in our communities and schoolyards have been positive. However, wild places still call out. For those who wish to offer appropriate risk-taking, independence, and challenge to your children there are many places and methods to do so. Below is a list of factors to look for when taking your children out to play. How you monitor and set up expectations is up to you but the first step is easy. Skip the rubber-lined playground and take them to the adventures they deserve.
*For a great look at the adventures of Theodore Roosevelt check out The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
5 Factors to consider when choosing a Wild Nature Play Area
When I am choosing locations to take children I look at these 5 factors to determine if it will be enjoyable and challenging enough depending on the children's age and ability.
Sensory Objects- Is there a diversity of landscape to provide a full sensory experience? i.e. rocky, sandy or mossy terrain, running water, rocks & boulders, shade & sunlight, trees & bushes, wildflowers & lichen
Mobility- Are their places to climb, jump, run, hide, tumble, throw, build, and duck? Is it clear of debris so to slip off shoes and go barefoot? Can I stay in a central location to let my children wander a bit further out and still feel safe?
Accessibility - How easy is it to get to with young or multiple children? If driving is necessary, is there plenty of parking? Are the children I am taking resilient enough to hike in a bit further to offer extra solitude? Is the hike long enough to build resilience?
Traffic- How much foot or vehicle traffic might I encounter? On a busy day will there be enough space to accommodate multiple groups without too much-unwanted overlap? Is this a place where people go to walk their dogs and am I okay with that?
General Ambiance- Are there bird songs, signs of wildlife, feeling of safety when exploring, and risk-taking? Is there a glaring hazard that keeps me overly cautious? Is there the availability of beautiful views or hideaways? Is it free from trash and dog poop?
What do you do when you get there? If you find a good spot wait patiently, return often, and the place will show you all that is has to offer.