". . .the word of God is not bound." II Tim. 2:9b

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Unstructured Play Week, Day 3: A Hike Up the Creek

"The earth is full of Thy lovingkindness, O Lord; Teach me Thy statutes." Psalm 119:64

The creek runs along the edge of an alfalfa field near town. Photos by Amy Ballard.

Welcome to Day 3 of Unstructured Play Week! Yesterday we played in the kitchen. Today we hike up the creek in rural Idaho for endless, unscripted play in the water, sand, mud, trees, and sun. Hope you brought your sun glasses and water shoes!

Recently, stories have circulated on Facebook and elsewhere asserting that American schools think recess is a waste of time, while schools in Europe often send students outdoors for unstructured, hands-on play time in nature. The stories smack of propaganda, but they are still a springboard for discussion.

There is an undeniable body of evidence that kids need to get outdoors and to have free play. One source that eloquently argues for getting kids out into nature is the Child Mind Institute. Cited benefits of time outdoors include building confidence and creativity, providing different stimulation, getting kids moving, making them think, and reducing stress and fatigue. All of this can happen through play, without adult-imposed structure or set learning objectives.

Here in southern Idaho, there are many creeks that run down out of the mountains toward larger streams and eventually to the Snake River and the Pacific. They provide a glorious playground for fishing, swimming, canoeing, kayaking, rafting, and other hobbies. But there are simpler ways to while away a sunny day at the creek, and kids know how to find them.

Makeshift minnow bucket
Recently, my children and I took two excursions up the creek near our home. We had so much fun the first time that we invited cousins on the second trip.

My daughter caught minnows in a bucket the first day, but when we forgot the bucket the next day, she had to make do with (ironically) a Swedish Fish bag. It worked just fine. She later released the little fishies back into the wild.

She and her cousins also made tiny houses out of rocks, mud, and decorative grass, moss, feathers, and flowers they found in the woods around our little beach. Each child expressed a different architectural bent and decorative flair.

Mud houses in the making
Meanwhile, the youngest two of our crew sat in a shady part of the creek and played with mud contentedly in their own private hot tub.

Cheeto the walking stick
Kids love playing creatively with sticks. On the first day at the creek, my youngest son adopted a walking stick and inexplicably named it "Cheeto." Later, he began digging for dinosaur bones (rocks) and identifying his finds. "This is a velociraptor tooth! Here's where it attaches to the gum, and here's where it cuts up the meat!"

We took time for simply enjoying nature, too. In the soft mud at the edge of the creek, duck and raccoon prints spoke of recent animal visits. The kids spotted birds in the air above us, including prairie falcons and yellow-headed blackbirds, and my daughter spied a duck hiding in a shady bend in the creek.

Wild flowers
There were wildflowers like yellow sweet-clover all around, and of course, the low, scrubby willows that are everywhere along Idaho's streams. What better place to spend a summer afternoon?

More wildflowers
Of course, not everyone lives in a rural area, so it can be more challenging to find a place for kids to play freely in nature. Chances are, you've already scouted out the local parks. Have you tried picnic areas beside rivers, streams, and lakes in or near your city?

Or maybe it's time to plan an outing just a few hours from home so the kids can sink their toes into the mud, hear the wind in the trees, and forget about technology for a while.

Fun by the creek
Although I'm not what you'd call a tree hugger or a hippie, I did grow up in the woods of Maine and can attest to the tranquility and happiness of time spent in the natural world. I hope that as parents and teachers and Christians we'll all head out into nature often, both to give children more and better opportunities for unstructured play and for our own reflection.

The Bible often speaks of the beauty of Creation and how everything that was made praises God. In just one example, Job 12:7-10 says,
“But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you; And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you. Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you; And let the fish of the sea declare to you. Who among all these does not know That the hand of the Lord has done this, In whose hand is the life of every living thing, And the breath of all mankind?"
American naturalist John Burroughs reflected,
"I go to nature to be soothed and healed, and to have my senses put in order."
Today, kids and teachers alike are desperate for that kind of low-tech recharge.

Come back tomorrow for more on unstructured play, this time in the vivid world of art.

The Field and Forest Handy Book

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