Our children have been slowly disappearing from public life and in our forests independent children of any age are now a rare sight. Taking note of Tim Gill’s (Rethinking Childhood) observation that “the visible presence of children and youth of different ages and backgrounds (…) is a sign of the health of human habitats, just as the presence of salmon is a sign of the health of the river”, this should be of great concern to all of us.
For this reason, I hosted a panel discussion at the Evolving the Forest Conference at Dartington Hall, called Inhabiting the Forest. The panel consisted of Roger Worthington, Head of Recreation and Public Affairs at Forestry England, Mark Renouard, Co-founder of Earth Wrights, Independent Artist and Educator Anne-Marie Culhane and Chris Salisbury, Founder of Wildwise.
“This oak tree and me, we’re made of the same stuff.”
― Carl Sagan
The relationship between humans and forests is an ancient one. From Yggdrasil, the Norse tree of life, to the Bodhi Tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment, trees and woods are at the core of world folklore and mythology. As a species we evolved in a forest-edge setting and on a neurological level the woods are still our natural habitat.
With this thought in the back of my mind I took a stroll through North Woods in Dartington on a (far too sunny) morning in February. Small creatures stirred in the undergrowth and the air was full of bird song. But one distinct sound was missing: that of the young human animal – climbing, laughing, running, playing – inhabiting the forest.
At Earth Wrights we believe nature is the ultimate environment for play and our designs aim to replicate the way Mother Earth fosters children’s innate biophilia. Yet countless studies have shown that children are spending less and less time outdoors and even less in the forest. How can we invite children back into nature’s perfect playground? Continue reading “Into the Woods – returning to nature’s perfect playground”
At Earth Wrights we love getting outdoors and playing in the fresh air, but even if the weather forces you indoors there is never an excuse not to play! So this year, after the last of the Christmas pudding has been scraped from the bowl and before you get cosy in front of the fire/radiator/x-box why not have some fun playing a silly game?
The Victorians loved parlour games. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, when Scrooge goes to ‘visit’ his nephew Fred with the ghost of Christmas present, Fred’s guests are playing parlour games which we still play today such as Blind Man’s Bluff and Twenty Questions. Here are some old and new games for you to try.
The Minister’s Cat
This game actually features in the 1970 film adaptation of Dickens’ novel and is a fun game for all ages.
Sit in a circle and start a clapping rhythm – two claps on the thighs and two hand claps, so thigh – thigh – clap – clap. To this rhythm each person takes it in turn to say ‘The minister’s Cat is a … Cat, adding an adjective in the space starting with the letter ‘a’. So ‘The minister’s cat is an awful cat’, the next person ‘The minister’s cat is an attractive cat’ and so on until someone misses their turn, as it gets more and more difficult to think of new adjectives. Once a person is out you move on to the next letter of the alphabet. ‘The minister’s cat is a brilliant cat’. When (if!) you make it to x you can use words starting with ‘ex’. Variations include each person doing the next letter of the alphabet or the next person having to find an adjective that starts with the last letter of the previous one. So ‘The minister’s cat is an abominable cat’ and then ‘The minister’s cat is an excellent cat’ That’s advanced level parlour gaming. Continue reading “Christmas – a Festival of Play”
At birth we are the buds, the tips of the tree of life. Our parents are the twigs on which we sprout, our ancestors the branches, and the boughs and trunk are as old as life itself. We are gifted with a precious heirloom, our jewel-like strings of genes. Worked and reworked through our long ancestral line, they determine both how we look and function and our potential. Three bright facets on this heirloom recently caught my magpie eye.
Children are born with small brains and five times the fat of their primate cousins – gorillas, for instance. They are primed with potential and fuel, ready to rapidly grow and learn how to survive and thrive in the world. Evolution has placed a tool in their hands. A flexible, quirky, unpredictable tool, useful when messing about and experimenting with the rich natural setting of planet earth. It’s called play, and children have a strong instinctive drive to engage with it. They enter the world expecting and anticipating play; it’s in their inherited genetic coding.
We are subject to the influence of biophilia, an instinctive attraction to all that is alive and vital. It is during childhood that we are particularly motivated to seek out the natural world around us. Paul Shepard calls it ‘loading the ark.’1
Human biological evolution happens slowly and our genetic make-up is still the same as that of our hunter gatherer ancestors of 12,000 years ago. ‘The neural processes that guided our ancestors’ behaviours in Pleistocene hunting and gathering bands are likely to still be in operation today’.2 Yet our culture has evolved at lightning speed over the last millennium, leading to today’s technological society. The ancient hand-in-hand journey of our genes and culture has been broken. They have lost each other on the path and are now strangers.
Earlier this year Tommy Leighton interviewed one of our directors Mike Jones for Early Years Childcare magazine. They spoke about why Mike got involved in designing for natural play and the unique approach Earth Wrights offers children and communities. If you want to know why we do what we do, read on!
Tell us a bit about Earth Wrights and your journey so far
The seeds for Earth Wrights were planted several decades ago when I finished my degree in Landscape Architecture. My focus had always been on how to make urban environments good places to live and creating playable communities is part of that. The pivotal moment came when I was asked to design a play space for a women’s refuge in London and couldn’t find anyone to build it, so I just got on and built it myself. I saw with my own eyes what a difference it made to the kids to have a playground that was exciting and imaginative and really met their instinctive play needs – allowing them to use the space whichever way they wished, rather than being stuck with just swings and slides. Continue reading “At one with the magic of nature”
It is easy to think that children and beautiful gardens don’t mix well. Think of balls and feet trampling your precious tulips and you would be forgiven for concluding that never the twain shall meet. But there are plants that are both robust enough to be handled and beautiful enough to inspire interest and appreciation from even the wildest kids.
Inviting your child into the garden – whether to tend or play – allows them to build a relationship with plants and wildlife that will stay with them forever. It lets them get up close with other species and develop an attitude of care and reverence as they watch the cycle of life unfold – a cycle which all creatures, humans included, are part of. In fact, when designing gardens for play the right mindset is one where children are considered just another wild species amongst the flora and fauna that we are attempting to nurture. Continue reading “Plants that love kids”
Along with bonobo apes and chimps, we’re in the top 3 most playful creatures on Earth. To most of us this will come as no surprise: watching them rolling, climbing, jumping, running – testing their bodies and minds at every opportunity – it is obvious our children love to experiment and explore. Play is vital to children’s health and wellbeing, so how can we ensure our children get to play in ways that suit their primal nature? Continue reading “Primed for Play – Responding to our children’s instinctive play needs”
Mike Jones and Mark Renouard think a lot about children’s play needs. They also think a lot about the needs of the natural world. As directors of Earth Wrights, they design play ‘habitats’ – natural spaces where active, social and imaginative play arises naturally from the environment – and believe these can encourage a reciprocal relationship between what both humans and the earth require to thrive.