When it came to playing, I lived with two experts. Zack had an imagination that turned the same stick into a dolphin, fishing pole, race car, pencil, or gun all in one day. Scott would climb over, under, through and around to get to new places, and rarely took no for an answer, all the while telling us stories about knights, superheroes or Lego. Both lived to splash, hold, dance, chase, catch, throw, climb, jump, grab and laugh. Before children I took hikes in the woods; with them, I played in the woods.
Our favorite place to play was Shu Swamp, a small preserve, only a 10-minute drive from our house. Shu Swamp is bisected by several streams that lead to a pond before flowing into Mill Neck Creek, to Oyster Bay and eventually Long Island Sound. There is an upland section with 200-year-old Oak and Tulip trees that are scented with Spicebush. Along the streams skunk cabbage, trout lilies, trilliums and jack in the pulpit grow. The varied habitats invited a lot of opportunity for playing. Each visit was a magical combination of old and new play.
I wanted to get better at playing in the woods, and at first, I thought the boys could just explain it by breaking play into simple steps, the same way I taught them to button a shirt or tie their shoes. They couldn’t. When I asked Zack, he laughed and ran off on his toy horse that was actually a stick. Scott simply explained, “play is fun.” Learning to play meant spending time with them and learning by doing. They grew up fast, and my research needed to get done before it was too late.
A typical outing began at the “big bridge.” a wood platform that overlooked a small pond. The shallow water covered the muddy bottom where huge carp swam with surprising grace. The boys loved to pick up rocks, throw them in, only to watch as they disappeared into a cloud of mucky mud. Scott happily toddled back and forth picking up one rock at a time. Throwing the rocks was fun and so was finding them. Scott did not grab just any rock, there were ones he picked up and ones he left on the ground. I never could figure out his thought process. He didn’t think to carry a bunch of rocks all at once to avoid going back and forth. Anything and everything was play. There was no means to an end getting to the fun part. It was all fun.
They had their rituals, but part of play is to be open to something new, otherwise they would miss new opportunities to play. For example, at one small stream, Zack discovered how to flip wet leaves out of the water. They waited patiently for a leaf to float by and then flicked it with a stick until the leaf flew out of the water. Scott called them “brownies.” Very quickly, they became skilled fishermen. Zack loved fishing at our beach, and this was a way to recreate the excitement of the catch.
The next stop was an enormous tulip tree that crashed from wind and rot to bridge a mud spot. The boys called it “sleeping giant log,” Scott loved walking across and would not let me hold his hand. I hovered next to him tiptoeing in the mud ready to catch any slips. He raced back and forth yelling, “did it, did it!” Zack challenged himself by stick collecting. Usually, they were kindling size, but one day he was determined to carry a log-sized stick all the way back to the car. As far as I can tell, there was absolutely no reason. However, Zack obviously had one. That stick/log laid in our front yard for a month as a trophy to his success.
When Scott did occasionally fall off, it was also part of the fun. Muddy spots were always the best. Even puddles near the parking lot were worth a stop. Zack had a pitter patter dance for mud, and of course, Scott always joined in. Mud splattered everywhere on pants, jackets, bodies. I held my tongue by reminding myself that clothes, cars, and bodies could always get cleaned. Mud was just another medium to play in, and they loved the sound and the feel of squishy.
The “Little Bridge” was the place to race leaves down the stream. The game started when Zack and Scott began to rescue leaves that were floating with the current. Using sticks as rescue poles, they teamed up to pull leaves to the stream bank. Over time this teamwork evolved into competitive leaf racing. They dropped their leaves in the stream and watched which was the first to float out of sight. After a lot of trial and error, they figured out that long thin leaves were the fastest. There was a lot of debate about where to start the races and all the other rules.
Their friends were not all humans. Their animal finding senses were well honed. Frogs, salamanders, snakes, and once in a while a turtle were all friends. They knew the best spots to meet up with them. One such place was the tiny, mud-filled pond, where the tadpoles lived. With a skilled grab and a small net, they almost always captured at least one. They learned quickly to cup the creatures in their hands right over the water. After a few moments of captivity and conversation, the boys always let the tadpoles go.
They knew which rotten logs were most likely to give shelter to red-backed salamanders and which did not. In one practiced move, they learned to flip over a log and grab any salamanders with supreme gentleness. They tenderly held them in wet hands, careful not to touch their tails since red-backed salamanders can break off their tails as a means to escape from predators. One time while catching salamanders a woman chastised me for letting Zack and Scott hold them. I politely ignored her but wanted to give my “extinction of experience” speech concluding with a sermon on the importance of outdoor play for children and finally remind her that it is okay to hold salamander with wet, gentle, respectful hands. No matter how many times they found a salamander, it was as if the first time.
On days with extra time we could make it to the triple trunk tulip tree. Three trees grew out of one stump; each one was too big to wrap our arms around. Zack called it the “train tree.” There was room to climb in between each trunk. Some days we climbed between the trunks and headed for Boston (that is where their cousins live). Other times they used the tree to be anything from a laboratory, base camp for studying bobcats, a truck or a fort.
Shu Swamp is a small patch of trees on Long Island surrounded by suburban excess, but to Zack and Scott, it was their playground. It was their setting for whatever their minds could imagine. Seeing this place through their eyes helped me to play and better understand where we lived. They opened a world to me that had been closed since my own childhood. There was no before or later, no shoulds, just that moment. It was as they ate ice cream, just the taste with not a thought of calories, price, carbon footprint or any other food guilt. Ice cream must taste, a lot better that way. Playing must be more fun that way. That was the lesson they were teaching. Play happens without thinking by being present and open to the place.
Their playing was also their praying. Outdoors is where we walked with God, life spirit, goodness, whatever anyone wants to call it. Outdoors was time apart from the media world. It was time for the more than human world, time to walk in the presence of others and not in the presence of products. These were wordless prayers that were said by merely being out there, but one had to be out there. They were not prayers of requests, but prayers of celebration. They were not prayers born of fear, but of love and fun.
This kind of play and prayer not only benefits our soul, but it also benefits the soul of the land. It will make Zack and Scott more responsible citizens. They were becoming native to the Long Island and developing a sense of place by engaging in play unique to their home ground. This bond to the land will lead them to love and protect their home ground, now and in the future. Faithful stewardship is built on love. Like a blankie or a favorite stuffed animal, we care for what we love. Through their play, the land was becoming their security blanket.
Playing on a computer does not connect one to a place, neither does playing sports. A sports field is a sports field in Arizona or New York. Indoor play is the same in Florida or Alaska. This kind of play does not foster a love of place. This kind of play could be done anywhere and anyplace. Good play in the wild outdoors is an interaction with the uniqueness of the place.
Whether they realize it or not the playing that developed their sense of place gave Zack and Scott an ability to be attentive to the world beyond humans. Being attentive is a forgotten skill that is still needed today. In the past, being an observer of the natural world was critical to survival. We need to give children (and adults) the time to play and pay attention to the natural world, to be aware when new plants are growing, and other plants are dying. To realize some birds are arriving earlier in the spring and other birds no longer sing. Without attention, much is missed. The subtle changes that indicate what is happening. We need to notice when the water is different, or the soil is changing. It is a particular sadness when a place changes and no one notices.
The word attention comes from the word attendere which means “to stretch toward,” Attention is an action, something one must do, it is not a passive activity. As with dominoes, being attentive starts a cascade of actions that lead to both a more fascinating and sustainable world. Attention leads to wonder and that leads to understanding. Only with a genuine understanding, can there be effective stewardship. Once in motion, the energy that is created, this ability to do work, works. It makes a difference by creating a web of knowledge, wonder, and stewardship. But nothing would get started if not for paying attention and paying attention would not happen without playing.
It seems so simple: play-attention-action equals a more sustainable planet, plus each step along the way is meshed with fun. With so many benefits, why don’t more children play outdoors? Too many children are stuck indoors, cut off from wild places and living a domesticated life.
Fear is stealing play from children. There is a fear that time playing is time wasted. Parents fear that children are not using their time “productively” which leads to over scheduling a child’s time with sports, art, music lessons, after-school activities and more, all in hopes of creating the successful child who will get into the perfect college. Schools jump on the bandwagon to show how educationally sound they are by giving more and more homework and standardized tests. There is a fear of the outdoors based on an overreaction to the slim possibilities of Lyme disease, kidnappers and other hazards. While awareness is needed and common sense precautions are valid, these fears should not keep children indoors and need to be held in perspective. Another problem is that there are fewer open spaces where children can build, throw, climb, break, catch, dig, run, get dirty, get lost, find wonder, and have fun.
Another factor is that children’s attention is being hijacked by screens. Children used to walk upright with eyes facing the world. Now they walk heads down, bent at the neck, hands in the texting position, missing the wonder of being in the moment. Children spend unbelievable amounts of time in front of the screen. The numbers seem impossible. I fear for what screens are doing to the attention children have to the right now, the right around them world. They are not learning the knowledge of place that comes directly from their place. The gain in information from smartphones is not worth the loss of information from smartphones. The solution is heart-achingly simple: Take the phones and let children out, it is an act of environmental stewardship.
When the boys got older, things changed. Instead of a bag of Cheerios and carrots, we would get a bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches. There was more walking and talking but even as teenagers they would there be sword fights with Joe Pye Weed stalks or dam building with rocks. In the winter breaking ice became another favorite pastime. When the boys return home as young adults they humor me and return for an occasional walk. We recall stories and share new ones. The racing stream no longer flows, cut off by erosion, more trees have fallen making more bridges to cross and there are deer in the woods now.
All those hours playing in the outdoors did not guarantee that the boys would grow up to be environmental activists, bird watchers, backpackers or biologists and that’s okay. I am confident that no matter what, they will be more aware and make better decisions to live ethically on the planet. They will have childhood memories of fun, and I am grateful for what they taught me about being in the outdoors by playing in the outdoors. Free play in the outdoors will not solve all our environmental problems. However, effective stewardship can’t be learned without playing around, being around and holding life.Dan Kriesberg is the author of A Sense of Place, Teaching Children about the Environment with Picture Books and Think Green, Books and Activities for Kids, as well as over 100 articles on environmental education and essays about his personal experiences in the outdoors. He lives on Long Island with his wife, Karen and two sons, Zack and Scott. Dan is a sixth-grade science teacher at Friends Academy. Whenever possible he spends his time in wild places backpacking, hiking and hanging out. You can view his work at Witness to the Wild: https://www.dankriesberg.com/.