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Clash of the Imaginations: How outdoor play and arguing improve social intelligence

Updated: Mar 5, 2021

I spent an afternoon playing “Bloody Monsters” by a creek with a group of 4th and 5th graders. The name of the game has more bark than bite and is really just a revved up version of tag. I was a guest instructor this day, and I had the pleasure of joining a group that was well established and had built rapport with one another. While a few children opted out of Bloody Monsters to work on their lean-to shelters, or “castles” as they were asked to be referred, the majority of the group began to explain their personas and special powers to be used in the game. The first “it” character had a special tagging power which was a loud and somewhat terrifying scream. If a player came too close to the scream they would lose one of your three lives. Everyone agreed that this was a great character to avoid!

The clash of the imaginations began between a few players on the “run away” side. They just couldn’t agree on what spells, powers, power multipliers or strategies were allowed to enhance their character. An “I call invisibility!” claim was shot down by another in the group. Someone would suggest “let’s use this spell in the scroll!” “No, this spell!” would be the reply. It was a steady back and forth, but the game never stopped moving. We hid in our protective fort that the monster could not enter and talked strategy, some argued. Eventually someone would yell “lets go,” and we ran around in circles to avoid receiving a scream. When we all returned to the fort and caught our breath, the conversations and arguing would commence with the monster leering beyond the trees. A few of the I-don’t-really-care-either-way players, myself included, would occasionally interject an opinion, but for the most part it was just a few strong willed participants who were having trouble finding common ground.

Negotiating the rules as the monsters wait

There is a lot to be said about the imaginative play that this game elicited. Enhanced creativity is a hallmark of wild nature play, but the real interest to me was the social interplay taking place. Every decision seemed so arbitrary! All the rules were altered as needed and anyone could do anything so long as, here is the kicker, a majority of other players agreed it was okay. Contracts were formed and negotiations took place. From my mentor’s eye view, it appeared that the social conflict navigation was the real objective while running and theatrics was just gravy.

Tell the tree the secret password before entering the "castle."

Anxiety and isolation have continued to become more prevalent among adolescents. The more time children spend in structured activities, such as their school day, organized extra curriculars, sports, and gaming, the less time they have to practice organic socializing. We are first taught how to interact with our parents and families and then with strangers. We are coached and provided with the appropriate scripts along the way. Eventually we leave the nest of home, likely for daycare or school, and the training continues without parental supervision. But instead of flying free, children’s days are likely spent in another nest. This new nest is a highly structured classroom setting where the most available time they have to freely express themselves is at the lunch table or recess. However, even the debate over recess continues and it is often whittled down to a nub of its former self.

Without the unstructured free time of Wild Nature Play, downtime, and other less structured activities, children are heading unprepared into some very uncomfortable and frightening social situations as tomorrow’s adults. Do you remember, former child reading this, what it was like navigating the social gauntlet of adolescents? Even with good social training, growing up was awkward and difficult. I leave room for the benefits of gaming and social media as bonding tools to a degree, however, I refuse to believe that this will be all that is necessary for healthy relationships in the future. There are basic human needs for physical interaction with one another, and time spent in nature together is a method to cultivate this bond.

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