Last Sunday, we went into nature.
Not a park, not a tourist farm, not some domesticated meadow on the edge of town, but Proper Nature.
Our first challenge was actually finding somewhere to go. We didn’t want to drive too far, this being our first time and a bit of an experiment, so we stayed fairly local. But - on Kidnappers’ Lane, we couldn’t find a public path. On Daisy Bank, there was no room to park the car from all the other enthusiastic nature goers (a reasonably warm and dry Sun morning in June). Finally, somewhere behind Leckhampton Hill, we found a little spot that seemed just right. Excited, purposeful, we got out of the car and stepped into the great unknown.
As soon as we got amongst the shrubs, I realised that my choice of attire, which consisted of a dress, cropped leggings and low heel wedges, was perhaps not the best. Stinging nettles and brambles were all around us, looking at me with glee. I had a clear choice: either the mud, which covered the middle of any path, or the stingers, which grew around the edges, just waiting for my bare ankles to approach. I chose the mud.
My children, on the other hand, didn’t like the mud. ‘You clean them too much!’ said my husband. ‘They’re afraid of the mud!’
As if to prove the point, both Ana and Sacha showed us their muddy little trainers, in concern and vague disgust.
‘Come on guys, it’s ok! You can get muddy. Today is a special day’, I said, half heartedly (meanwhile thinking about how I would ever manage to get their shoes clean again).
‘A special day? Is it my birthday?’ asked Ana. She is still going through the phase of being obsessed by birthdays.
‘Well, no, it’s not your birthday but it’s a day when you can get muddy. In fact, today it’s good to get muddy’.
‘Well, I don’t like mud’, said Ana, again.
‘We’ve come here today so you can have a lovely play in nature’, I added.
‘In what?’ asked Ana.
Sacha was rooted to one spot, looking around with suspicion.
They both seemed to be waiting for my husband and me to do something. To show them what to do. To entertain them. To demonstrate how on earth they are going to play here, with no toys?
The website didn’t mention anything about this.
I had recently come across www.nature-play.co.uk. It is dedicated to promoting the importance of free play in child development, and especially play in nature. Now, I am not a big nature person – I see myself as more of a city girl, I’m attracted by the streets and the noise and the urban delights that wait behind every corner of a new metropolis. If I had my way, I’d probably be dragging my children up and down London or New York every day. Thankfully, we don’t live in either London or New York and so my urges usually have to be satisfied with Waterstones’ Costa Coffee, where the children and I strike a little bargain: honey on toast and some drawing time for them, a large latte and a minute of peace for me. It usually works ok for all parties.
But, I am not so ignorant nor so selfish to not recognise that my children’s needs are different from my own. So when I came across this website, and read carefully through its very scientific, anthropological, and at the same time almost spiritual principles of why children should play in nature and how you should connect a child’s heart to the earth’s heart, I felt we had to give it a go. Good bye, The National Gallery. Good bye, Empire State Building. Good bye, busy streets and bright lights and exciting shop windows. The woods were calling us to come and play.
And so we went.
But my children wouldn’t play. So where did we go so wrong?
The site had been full of pictures of wholesome babies and toddlers, crawling happily through the undergrowth, an embodiment of meditation in motion. Earth children, pioneers of nature, natural born explorers, fearless and connected with this primal environment.
In real life: my children, pioneers of Persil and Ariel, natural born Cbeebies watchers, not particularly fond of creepy crawlies and totally disconnected from this environment they know so little about.
But worry not.
Children are so young, so new, that anything which we as parents have managed to mess up already, is quickly and easily fixed when we let things take their normal course again. When Wayne and I simply stayed quiet for long enough, when they realised that it’s ok to get dirty and that they wouldn’t get any instructions from us, they started to relax. Their eyes started to wonder. Their faces started to show curiosity. They started to move, tentatively, in the direction of things that grabbed their interest – a stick here, a flower there.
Before long, the magic was happening right in front of our eyes. Our children forgot about our presence. They became completely entranced in their own world. Ana was lost in imaginative play, holding multiple conversations about mud with her imaginary friends, and Sacha was doing what he loves most, running and jumping and then running and jumping some more. Eventually he found a hole that was big enough for both of his little feet to fit inside, and spent the next half an hour climbing in and out of this whole, with more enthusiasm than if he had been Alice about to enter Wonderland. They played with sticks and stones and leaves and flowers and anything else they came across. They were entirely absorbed in the abundance of their playground.
It was wonderful. And although this was just one brief Sunday morning, it really transformed the way I think about outdoors, from something that vaguely bores me to something that is essential for the development and happiness of my children.
Next time, I must just remember to bring some chairs, books and a flask of tea for Wayne and I, and we can all happily stay in the Great Outdoors all day. We might even – and I’m pushing the boat out here – might even consider going camping one day.