Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Seasons, Playing, & Nature Deficiency Disorder

Zhara and Angus exploring the beauty of the Uinta National Forest just south of us.

One of the wonderful things about living in Utah is the beautiful landscape. I mean, honestly, we can see mountains from every window in our house, and we don't have pricey real estate. We live a block from a wetland preserve, and a couple of miles from the 22 mile long (and still pretty polluted -- thank you US Steel) Utah Lake.

A family bike ride, & stop for exploration, along Utah Lake.

Thankfully, my kids like being outside, and so do I. So we spend a lot of time playing in the woods at the edge of the wetland preserve or hiking in the mountains. My children have even talked me into camping three times this year. I hate camping. Having had back surgery a few years ago and being a notoriously bad sleeper, I am not, in the verbiage, a happy camper. After last weekend, I did extract a promise that from now on I will not be required to actually sleep out in a tent. We can hike, we can roast marshmallows, and then we can go home and I can sleep in my bed. The children have agreed to this concession, but I digress...

The toasted marshmallows are the best part anyway.

The thing that I have noticed though about my kids, and actually about many of the unschooled kids that I have met, is that they seem to have a really good sense of the turn of the seasons, and the natural world and Earth around them. For unschooled kids, Fall doesn't start at the beginning of August when school starts again. And neither does it for the Earth. These kids still swim in September. They run barefoot in the sprinklers and make mud pies in the backyard with friends, several weeks into other kids sitting dutifully at desks. When the first nip in the air starts, they go exploring in the woods to see what is changing.

Angus and Winnie swimming in leaves last Fall in Kansas.

When it snows, they don't watch it out the window, they bundle up, go outside, and spend the day sledding.

Last year's snow people exhibit in our old front yard.

When it gets especially warm one April, they aren't stuck wishing they could go outside and play, they pull out the slip-n-slide and learn about gravity and water flow, and how much fun it is to be outside on a warm spring day.They bury their hands in dirt and plant things -- outside -- not in little styrofoam cups on classroom windowsills, come spring. On a warm summer day, they grab their best friend and go roller skating around the bike path for an hour, coming back hot and sweaty and seeking water, but never so happy.

Whether children are urban or suburban or rural, it shouldn't matter. Nature is there. The outside is waiting. Sure, it may look different to explore nature in a city, but that doesn't mean kids don't learn just as much. They just learn about a different outside -- the one they actually live in!

That is not to say that my kids don't watch their share of TV, or play on the computer. They do. They are not big videogame kids -- that is their own doing, nothing imposed by me, but they also love to get outside. When they want to... not in 20 minute scheduled increments, after a rushed lunch, and a morning spent sitting stark still. Not as a blip in the day, but as a big chunk of it somedays and a smaller bit others. And of their own volition.

Painting with another homeschooled friend in the front driveway.

An art installation.

"Oh, look, a rolly polly, let's make it a house."

"Wonder what paint AND bubbles would make..."

I feel more and more like the nature deficiency disorder we hear so much about these days has a lot more to do with how we raise our children, than with our children themselves. If left to their own devises, I don't think we'd have a problem at all. Richard Louv in his book, Last Child in the Woods, noted that children are spending less time outdoors, and are therefore less connected to the natural world and the seasons. I have to posit that this is at least partially a product of the school structure that we have set up. Many kids are in school year round. They aren't even getting a summer to run around and just be kids. Or if not in school year round, then in afterschool care, or numerous after school activities. They are ALWAYS inside, in a forced learning environment. They are never just left to play and explore on their own. How could they not become cut off from nature? How could they not become cut off from natural exploration and learning on their own terms? How could they not forget how to just play?

For some reason, in the Western world, we have come to view play as a bad thing. As "just playing." As not having an actual purpose. As not being as good as say, reading, or studying, or learning to "play" an instrument, or doing a worksheet on something "useful." Now, don't get me wrong, my kids take activities -- some take karate, some piano, and another tumbling, but it's not their main source of recreation.

Angus, Zhara, and Olly playing in a river bed during the dry season.

Cultures that are more tied to nature, and those of years past, recognized play for what it is, incredibly useful at imprinting a culture's values, learning, and history on the next generation. Children in these cultures are, and were, absolutely encouraged to play. By playing, they learned. They learned what was important to the culture. They prepared themselves for their adult roles, and they made community... without ever being "taught" about it. Today our children have become absolutely cut off from community, and their traditions and culture. They leave college with no sense of themselves, and no idea how to actually live in community with others, if they can even find a community to be a part of. Look around at the home foreclosures, the massive debt, the huge antidepressant use, overstressed young parents with no outlet and no one to turn to for help. As a people we are in crisis. A crisis of stress, overwork, and a complete inability to relax and enjoy our lives.

Young adults graduate college or post-graduate work, finishing 17-20 years of education without even a clue of how to live life. In the great name of technology and living not "as" their parents, but always "better" than their parents, we have chipped away at living. We have chipped away at play, at learning to live, at being happy, at feeling secure and satisfied that we have, are, and can be enough. We have given up community, and relaxing, and being in nature and just enjoying life.

Unschooled kids can play. I mean, I have watched my children literally meet a kid, and then throw down in an imaginary game of whatever within seconds. And mine are not the most social kids on the planet, so there you go.

Hiking across a log in the mountains.

There's just something about getting back to being encouraged to play, to let go, and be themselves, to be imaginative, to use their brains for things other than Learning with a capital L. We spend so much time cramming our children full of numbers and letters and facts, that we forget they are kids. We worry what colleges they will get into, before they are old enough to walk. We worry whether they will get a good job, before they are old enough to know what college is.

We need to spend more time worrying about giving our children license to truly enjoy life. To enjoy each other. To roll down a hill with reckless abandon. To invent another world, and then people it with their friends dressed in amazing and outlandish costumes. Unschooled kids are primal in the absolute best sense of the world.

A tea party with friends.

And they are prepared for their future. Armed not just with facts, but with the ability to interact with the world around them. With the ability to meet new people, and team build on site. With the ability to real world problem solve. These qualities, the qualities we are told are so sought after in today's marketplace, they aren't taught in a classroom. They can't be! They come from creativity and imagination. Those things that are absolutely beat out of children in traditional school. They come from running outside, jumping on one's bike and taking off for the woods to explore alone, or meeting up with friends and spending the day directing an off-the-cuff imaginary world.

Zhara picking wildflowers.

Those qualities... they come from playing. They come from being outside, and exploring the world through play. The very thing that our society tells us our children are doing too much of -- just playing.

I can bet you that there is not a homeschooling family, particularly an unschooling family, reading this, that has not heard the comment, "but it seems like all your kids ever do is play." Well, hallelujah! Maybe we should start taking this as the supreme compliment that it is. How much happier will our children be in twenty years when, instead of having to pop an antidepressant to deal with stress and anxiety, they can recognize that they need a day off and take a hike in the woods? Holy Cow, I would be ecstatic! And honestly, so would they.

Zhara checking the water depth of the freezing cold mountain snow runoff.

Angus back at the same river in the Fall when it's an almost dry river bed after the dry season.

Olly and Winnie checking things out.

A hike with dad.

Last child left in the woods? Not in this family.


  1. Thanks for a great post! I noticed this when my kids were preschoolers, and we eschewed beeping plastic in favor of simpler toys made from natural materials. Things moved at a slower pace, indoor and outdoor play flowed seamlessly together, and everything was multipurpose. I noticed it next when I began to realize how many people self-medicate with shopping/possessions. When my husband and I both worked full time, we slid that way ourselves. The income sacrifices we made in order to homeschool have been enormously beneficial, because they have reminded us how much pleasure can be derived from simple things, and how little we really "need". Both open-ended play and simplicity seem to me to be linked with unfettered outdoor play. There is a calm, focused interest I see in children who are frequently outdoors and accustomed to amusing themselves. I've often thought, even before reading Last Child in the Woods, that many diagnosed attention problems might be the natural result of subverting hunter/gatherer instincts by placing children in an artificial and institutional environment with very limited exposure to the outdoors.

  2. I love this!
    (And I didn't know you had a blog! :) )

    I can relate to these thoughts in a few different ways - children being close to the earth... I've often thought that so much of our learning and exploring has to do with the seasons and weather and just natural opportunity.
    Play - of course!! :)
    And regarding the styrofoam cups on the windowsill - I've often said and thought that school tries to imitate life - that it tries to structure things that can (and should) be discovered trough joyful curiosity. Totally synthesized and then put into a frame that it no longer looks anything like itself.

    One thing I hadn't considered is your interpreting NDD as being less to do with children, and more to do with the parents and family life.
    Of course!!
    NDD isn't something I worry about (as I don't feel it applies to us), but I believe you're right that it's because we've taken children out of so many of their natural-learning environments. Family, woods, free time, play with all the kids in the neighborhood (who are very busy with homework and karate and gymnastics)... living in school and at the kitchen table is cutting them off from their best resources. :(
    So we'll shout a different way from the rooftops, and they can come when they're ready. :)