One of the best ways to engage a group of kids in free play outdoors is to provide them with a few skills (how to tie a couple of knots, pocket knife safety) and a whole day outside with other kids in a place where there are no restrictions on touching plants or moving sticks. Unfortunately, that is very difficult to do nowadays because so many parks and preserves have rules against touching or moving anything that is or was ever alive. Yet, there is so much to be learned from rearranging sticks and rocks and leaves to create shelters, faerie houses, rock walls, tree houses, nature art, etc… If you remember back to your own childhood, chances are you spent time outside building forts and climbing trees.As Richard Louv discusses in “Last Child in the Woods,” children gain so much neurologically, emotionally, and educationally from touching and interacting with nature.

Children develop a connection to the natural world in this way, and that inspires them to preserve the places where they play. As a biologist, I recognize that there are places in the world where touching nature has too great of an impact and should be avoided, such as coral reefs. However, in Central Texas on long overgrazed land, I think it is a worthy trade off to let kids rearrange fallen branches if what they get out of it is a connection to nature and an interest in conservation. A fellow family nature club leader and conservation biologist wrote an excellent article about children’s need to interact with nature, even if it leaves a small amount of environmental impact. If children are not allowed to play and connect with nature, there may not be much nature to preserve in the future, as a generation of people who aren’t connected grow up to decide on policy and conservation.

This is why one of my goals is to provide the families in AFiN with unstructured time outside in a place like this as often as possible. We are lucky enough to have land we can use behind our family’s business where the kids can respectfully move around sticks, branches, leaves, rocks, and dirt to build forts, shelters, and faerie houses. I have also heard that there are places such as the Austin Nature and Science Center that have an area where kids can move sticks to build forts. I strongly believe that there need to be more places like this that kids can enjoy unstructured play outdoors. Even schools could build this kind of area into their playscapes inexpensively. One example is the “loose parts” playground activity and design. This type of playground poses less risk and incurs far less expense than the traditional metal and plastic playground equipment that does little to stimulate children’s imaginations or encourage their fitness, if for no other reason than these playscapes are the same everywhere and are thus less interesting (and they cost a lot more too).

The families in AFiN drove about an hour West of Austin to meet us. Unfortunately this year, the day we scheduled this activity turned out to be 45*, windy, and misty. I was worried that the families would be discouraged from coming out because of the weather, but they braved the weather and had a great day, even picnicking outside behind their newly built shelters that helped cut the wind.

When we arrived, it was cold and windy, so I started the day with a very quick lesson on shelter building and a lashing knot that could be used to create a frame (for a shelter, a fort, or a climbing structure). A few of the parents pointed out that the weather provided the perfect motivation to build a strong, windproof shelter quickly. Kids and adults cooperated to build a few shelters and then set up blankets and camp chairs behind them to stay warm and out of the wind. Seeing families working together on this project provided a good example of another goal of a family nature club: “scheduled family time” where the whole family works and plays together outside without the distractions of electronics.

We had just cleared a lot of secondary growth cedar (that prevents water from entering the aquifer) and oak wilt infected trees, so we had lots of wood and branches available to work with. And, it was so cold that the kids could raid the wood piles with little worry of snakes. The weather was miserable, and a few people that didn’t expect it to be so cold left early on to return to the warmth of home, but it turned out to be perfect weather for teaching shelter building and gathering the needed materials. The day lived up to the old adage: “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”

After a quick lesson in shelter building, we set up a small archery range and taught the kids a little bit of archery and safety. The archery area was set up all day and kids picked up a bow when they felt like it (after they had an initial lesson and with their parents’ supervision).

Even the parents tried their hand at making an arrow actually stick in a target (our targets are old and weather-worn, so they were too hard for most of the kids to stick arrows into using our youth weighted bows, but everyone still had fun trying.)

While I was busy supervising the archery, taking pictures, and helping with lashing knots, the kids wandered down into the ex-pond (now dry because of the drought) and built a whole town of little houses and shelters. I had not even suggested this activity, they just came up with it on their own. After 12 years of parenting and several more of teaching, I am still amazed at what kids will come up with when they have lots of unstructured time outside with other kids. I would have never been able to think up and plan an activity this creative – only a mind that has been left alone to imagine could have come up with this. To me, this is an outstanding example of the neurological and educational benefits of unstructured outdoor play. Richard Louv talks about this type of play stretching the creativity and attention spans of children’s brains, and I witnessed this first hand that day. The kids (ages 2-13, both boys and girls) could have stayed with this activity for a week if they had been allowed to (and it hadn’t been quite so cold.) It was inspiring to see their imaginations at work.

After a picnic lunch, I added a new skill for most of the kids – knife safety. I taught the kids 2nd grade and older (and their parents) how to use a pocket knife, how to be safe, and the beginnings of how to whittle. I explained to the parents how we handle knife safety in our house: pocket knives live on my desk and the boys have to ask to use it and tell me what they plan to do and where they plan to do it (and how they plan to keep their little brother away from it), and knives have to be returned to my desk afterwards. Then I gave each child a bar of soap to carve as practice. After they showed me that they could use their knife safely, they were allowed to use it for the rest of the day. The use of pocket knives added a whole new level to their fort building. A couple of kids did get small cuts on their fingers, but I believe that getting a small cut is a good lesson that provides a physical memory of knife safety that may help avoid a worse injury later. I handed out a few bandaids, and everyone went back to whittling, shelter building, fort making, and archery.

As it got closer to evening and the temperature dropped, the families all packed up and headed back to Austin. Ever since then, the kids have been begging to go back out and check on/work on their forts and shelters. Imagine what they would build if they could work on it every day at school on the playground.

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