Outdoor learning challenges have recently become very popular on social media: “100 Days Outdoors Challenge”, “30 Days Wild Challenge”. When I was a child, playing outdoors was not a challenge though, it was just the way we played. Sunny days, rainy days, cold days, snowy days … we just played outside.
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I grew up in rural Romania in the 1980s, and it looks like I had the kind of childhood that now is considered the perfect childhood by authors like Richard Louv (The Last Child in the Woods) and Angela J. Hanscom (Balanced and Barefoot). I enjoyed hours and hours of unstructured free-play outdoors with other children, away from the constant supervision of adults. I climbed trees, explored abandoned fields, and played in the forests around our village. I had a little rabbit, my parents raised chicken, and my grandparents had a farm. We grew our own vegetables and fruits.
When I was in school, we organized field trips to the forest for a whole day – 90 kids in the forest and just three teachers. Obviously, they were not there to supervise us. They let us play and explore while they sat down, lost in their own conversations. We were allowed to go as deep as we wanted into the woods. There were no rules to follow, except one. We had to come back to our meeting point when we heard, “Adunarea si plecarea!” (“Gathering and leaving!”) yelled by the teachers and repeated by all the kids in the forest. During those trips nobody was injured nor lost.
I can’t separate the memories of my childhood from the experiences I had in nature: the smell of the dust and the rain on hot summer days, the touch of the ground and the hot asphalt of the dusty roads of the village as I walked barefoot during the summertime, the view of the colorful fields of edible plants that we learned to recognize and gather, the names of the trees, and the sound of the birds in the forest and of the animals in the village. The feeling of joy mixed with fear when climbing a tree just a bit higher than the last time.
30 years later, I am now the parent of a 2 years old child in Germany. When we moved here I was positively surprised by how close we are to nature, even in the cities. We are living in the city, but we have squirrels visiting our garden, even entering the house. Playgrounds are located in natural settings and the play structures are made of wood. Germany is famous for its Waldkitas (forest kindergartens) and Waldorf-schools where nature, seasons, and outdoors learning are very important.
So when we relocated here I was so excited about my daughter meeting other children and playing outdoors. But how do you do that when you are new in town? When I was a child, all I had to do is to go outside my house to meet other kids and play together. But today? We sign up for activities for children, find playgroups, and organize play dates…
In our little city surrounded by forests I thought it will be easy to find an outdoor playgroup. It was not. Most of them were indoors. Like the one we attended. Families took turns to host the play dates. Although many houses had beautiful gardens and nice playgrounds just around the corner, our children played indoors.
After a while I found a Waldspielgruppe (a forest playgroup). We met in the forest, and the kids spend two hours playing there through any kind of weather. Exactly the kind of outdoor learning I was looking for. Children looked for worms and bugs, jumped in the mud puddles, and caught frogs. At the same time, I noticed that our group leader prepared a lot of material for each meeting: clay, flashcards, games, and Q&A.
When did nature become not enough? When did we start thinking that every experience has to be a learning experience?
“Children learn from anything and everything they see. They learn wherever they are, not just in special learning places.” ― John Holt, Learning All The Time
Are flashcards, set-up activities, and Q&A more important for outdoor learning than directly experiencing nature?
Books like Free to Learn and Balanced and Barefoot provide an answer based on science and research. My daughter gave me the answer based on her intuition. So did the other kids. Flashcards? They couldn’t care less. All they wanted was to play in the mud.
“Play Is The Work of the Child” – Maria Montessori
Times might have changed and in one generation outdoors play might have become “a challenge” and an “activity to be scheduled” by the parents, but when I look at the children around me, they have the same innate desire to be in the nature: try to catch frogs and earthworms, walk barefoot, jump in the puddles and run free in the woods. My hope is that we can follow their lead.
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