Into the Woods – returning to nature’s perfect playground

“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?

DREAMING THE FOREST

Our children’s connection to nature can be nurtured through our stories and culture. Many traditional folktales, classics such as Winnie the Pooh and a whole range of contemporary children’s books are set in the woods.

For older children films such as Bridge to Terabithia depict the woods as a magical place to escape the protagonist’s turbulent family life.

Activities such as decorating a tree with wishes or finding a special place to visit at different times of the year create both a physical and mythical connection with the woods.

A wishing tree

EXPLORING THE FOREST

Play opportunities in the woods are endless – there is no better place for hide and seek – but if your children need encouraging why not try one of the following:

Bird song bingo. On your walk through the forest find a nice play to sit. Close your eyes and listen out for the different bird songs you can hear. The first person to count 5 different calls wins or if you have younger kids you can count together and see if you can get to 10!

Find your tree. In pairs one person is blindfolded and the other person leads them to an interesting looking tree. The ‘blind’ person uses their hands to get to know the trees, the feel of the bark and leaves and any quirky features. After they have explored the tree they are led away, their blindfold is removed and they have to guess which tree was theirs.

Treasure hunt – Requires a bit of preparation but always popular. Especially if you reward them with an ice cream at the end.

GROWING THE FOREST

I remember the look of wonder on my son’s face when he discovered a chestnut shoot in the garden and I told him that it was the first beginnings of what would become a mighty tree. Planting a tree is a great way to help children build a relationship for life, allowing them to return to their tree, watch it grow and create memories that connect them to a specific place. It is also essential activity to safeguard our children’s future in the face of climate change.

There are several tree planting schemes for schools and communities. The Woodland Trust are currently taking applications for trees to be delivered in November 2019. Why not talk to your neighbours or your child’s school to see what you can do together?

And if you would like to further explore ways to invite our children back into their natural habitat, I will be hosting a panel discussion titled Inhabiting The Forest at the Evolving the Forest conference which takes place from 19-21 June at Dartington Hall

(first published in Reconnect Magazine spring 2019)

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