It may seem a strange thing to do when you live in the country, but today we took our kids into nature – in the city.
Although we have access to good nature right where we live, one of the advantages that city dwellers have – or let’s say town dwellers – is that they get given the equivalent of several hundred thousand dollars to create the ideal environment for their children to play in.
What do we mean by this?
Well, at the ranch where we live, any play equipment has to be made or bought and certainly maintained by us.
We cut the trails. Several times a year we clear them.
If we want to go further afield than our own patch of land, we have to rely on the permission of neighbors (no public rights of way in Texas).
In the city, by contrast, local government spends huge amounts of money on state of the art play equipment, well maintained trails, and beautiful parks – all of which just exist as a gift to whichever family wants to use them. Amazing!
Of course a lot of families do take advantage of this, as they should. At least the play equipment part. What we find surprising however is that the trails – the well maintained nature – that is available in pretty much every neighborhood of Austin, which is our local city, is hardly used at all.
Today was an unusually hot day: almost 90 degrees Fahrenheit in March. Pease Park where we went has a beautiful creek running through it called Shoal Creek. This time of year the creek is flowing over little water falls and cascades. Fish swim in the shallows. The bird life can be amazing – spoonbills, bright red cardinals, even feral parquets. The water is crystal clear.
What was strange however was that despite the number of kids in the park, not a single one was playing in the water.
Well maybe one kid. Or actually maybe two kids: ours.
They made a bline straight to first accessible little waterfall and for over an hour, they splashed, explored, tried to catch fish and generally did what kids on a warm day in beautiful water do.
Some other kids did appear. But not one was allowed to get in the water. The first, a girl, not much older than our two and a half year old boy, seemed to be struggling walking over the stepping stones by herself and was not let go by her mother to explore or experience. She certainly didn’t get to climb over the rock, splash or get her feet wet. She didn’t get to have fun.
A little while later another family appeared, this time with two boys. This time it nearly seemed that at least one of the boys might join us in the water. He even took one shoe and sock off. It then appeared that his parents told him to put the shoe back on and off they went. They also had a little boy with them that was about the same age as ours who was not allowed to explore the stepping stones by himself but had constant hand holding from dad.
It seems none of these kids were allowed to make their own mistakes and figure out where to step, where it’s slippery, and just how to navigate their own bodies over uneven ground and shallow water.
The final person to cross the stepping stones was a young woman who stopped to say hallo and introduced herself as a pre-school teacher. “That’s so cute” she said looking at our two little pirates splashing away.
“But it won’t last.”
That comment was interesting.
Why wouldn’t it last?
Would it not last because she assumed the kids would soon reject nature as somehow uncool? Would it be because she assumed we might begin to discourage it?
Thinking back to our own childhoods, I don’t think we ever lost the sense of wonder that playing in this sort of nature gives. And certainly carried on doing so into our adult lives.
Did we just get a window on what some people call “Nature Deficit Disorder”? These people were good parents, taking their kids out on a nice day to the park. The teacher was a nice lady. The play equipment was full of kids, all having fun and being active. There was nothing not to like.
It’s also easy to understand a parent’s anxieties if say the water was dirty, full of trash, broken glass or those kinds of hazards. But Shoal Creek is pristine.
Is it a matter simply of habit?
That the habit of exploration in nature is just leaving our culture? People have been asking these questions for years of course.
It does seem, that if our brains and bodies are hard wired for this planet, which of course they are, because we don’t live on Mars – then exploration of this planet must be vital to the development of our intellect as well as our fitness and our senses.
When one thinks of urban life, one often thinks of no nature, but the truth is most cities have amazing nature easily accessible for all it’s just not used.
We are sure that if any of the kids had been encouraged at least a little bit to get their shoes off and explore their own natural instincts would have taken over. Were their parents discouraged from doing this when they were kids?
So why write this blog? Perhaps because it seems that exploration, wonder and play in nature is such an essential feature of human happiness. Are we creating depression without even knowing it but letting this go from our daily culture? Is the real point to asking these questions not so much about child development and learning but more about essential human happiness and quality of life? Is it just some how essentially human to have the means of happiness available and not to use them? Or is it essentially inhuman – the product of a culture that continually tells us that only technology and the acquisition of stuff will make us happy?
One can check one’s texts and google stuff on a cell phone while wading in a creek: we were doing that today. There doesn’t have to be a separation between nature and technology. There doesn’t have to be a separation between urban living and nature.
We do believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Why then even when life is good and one’s essential needs are met, does it seem so often to elude us? Is it as simple as making sure that you take your shoes off and get in the creek?
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