Sharing Delight With A New Generation
Few things give me more pleasure than watching children playing in a garden. It gives me hope that today’s computer-oriented families can still fall in love with the natural world. These days, children spend more time indoors than outside and fresh air time often involves team sports and games. That’s fine, yet team sports don’t connect us to nature. In my day, kids played outside most of the time. Now, unstructured outdoor play is sadly rare.
I’m fortunate to share a home with a family that is nature-oriented. My young housemates attend a Waldorf school where outdoor activities and classroom nature tables are common. At home, they play in my garden and woods and their weekends often involve camping or beach combing.
Last Child In The Garden?
Sadly, however, many North American children are not even sure how to interact with the natural world. It’s not too surprising that city kids don’t get out much, but even those raised in suburban surroundings spend more time inside than out. Rural kids do tend to play outside, but even this is changing as computer games prove more alluring than walking in the woods.
Richard Louv’s powerful book, Last Child In The Woods, calls this increasing discomfort with both the natural world and unstructured time ‘nature deficit syndrome’ and proposes active interventions to bring people back into wholesome contact with nature. Happily, inter-generational gardening can be a bridge to nature, especially if it’s made as fun as possible, with plenty of play time mixed in with any garden chores.
Garden Gleanings Turn To Gold
One of my favorite ways to encourage nature play is to invite children to make use of garden gleanings that would otherwise end up on my compost heap. Watching petals, leaves, seedpods and twigs turn into thatch and blankets, washtubs and ladders is as enchanting to me as to the children.
This kind of activity makes a lovely introduction to nature play for children who aren’t yet at ease outside with ‘nothing to do.’ For many years, I have led an annual Fairy House Workshop at the local library. This outdoor program is popular with both boys and girls, who team up to create tiny habitats for fairies (or mice, or little people) in the library gardens. Many of these fantasy homes are sited on stumps which are arranged near pathways, but others are tucked under bushes or nestled into nurse logs.
Keep It Safe & Simple
The “rules” are few and simple: don’t pick any mushrooms (some are not safe to handle). Use only natural materials (no glass, plastic, or made objects). Think small. Because the library gardens are visited daily by many people, the children ask permission before picking leaves and flowers. When they do, we show them how to glean from the back and bottoms of plants where removal won’t show.
To get them started, we fill wheelbarrows with all kinds of garden trimmings that might be of use. I brought things from home as well: purple pea pods saved from my latest pea shelling, pistachio shells, beautiful kale foliage, and corn silk saved from husked ears. We arranged all this in informal heaps and mounds, then stood back as kids rummaged happily, then carried off armloads of bark and moss, twigs and petals.
Though the kids work on their own, the Friday Tidies who tend the library grounds are on hand to offer help as needed as the revels began. It’s totally satisfying to watch kids work their own magic with real materials. Seed pods become fairy fruit and berries. Leaves of many shapes, colors, and sizes turn into roofs, floors, carpets and coverlets. Tiny huts are roofed with cedar swags or thatched with ornamental grasses. Flowers and petals, shells and feathers become floor tiles, path pavers, blankets and wall hangings.
Some kids replicate their own favored things, from trampolines and ziplines (good old bindweed!) to fishing rods and canoes. Other make dream palaces filled with frothy flowers, or set tables with money-plant silver dishes (those silvery disks also make beautiful overlapping shingles). We always provide a little water, which fills the little seed pod bowls and cups and oyster shell bathtubs.
Weeds Of Wonder
Even weeds are treasured, especially bindweed, which makes fabulous swings, hammocks, and rope ladders. Bindweed is also used to tie sticks together for walls and roofs, secure grassy thatching, and fasten all manner of little things into place. Sticky weed (aka cleavers, or bedstraw) is also useful in many delightful ways. Here, the good news is that when plants are picked soft and green, the seed won’t dry viable, so you aren’t spreading weeds all over the garden.
It’s delightful to watch children change from walking around stiffly, looking unsettled and antsy to becoming fully engaged in a lively, hands-on building project. Even without (or especially without) adult suggestions, the range and scope of their imaginative makings is impressive and often unexpected. If you want to try this in your own backyard, pick a place where your children, grandchildren, or neighborhood children can freely play. Explain your own guidelines, then stand back. If we’re lucky, their connection to the natural world will last a lifetime and they will in turn entice the gardeners of their own tomorrow.