Last Child on the Prairie {On Playing Outside, Part 1}

On Playing Outside at lifeyourway.net

As I mentioned in this week’s Weekly Reads post, I’m in the middle of re-reading one of my all-time favorite books, Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv.

I was fortunate enough to attend an authentic Montessori school for 13 years (from the time I was two-and-a-half until I graduated 8th grade), and that school was located on 26-acres of paradise. With thick woods and open fields, trails and blacktops, there was plenty of space for us to roam, explore and play, and I really wouldn’t trade those years for anything — even the year where we spent hours and hours scraping gypsy moths off the trees to keep them from completely destroying our woods (gag!).

In the early elementary years, we explored the property, cared for the rabbits and spent hours and hours simply playing. As we got older, our responsibilities increased, and we built lunch shelters in the woods, dug out ditches to prevent erosion, cared for the horses and camped in the fields.

It sounds idyllic, I know, and it really was all of that and more.

Those experiences shaped me — and my educational and parenting philosophies — more than I could have ever guessed at the time, but it wasn’t until I read Last Child in the Woods for the first time that I really understood why and how.

On Playing Outside at lifeyourway.net

The truth is that I was the kind of kid who would happily curl up with a book…inside. I hated bugs. I’m not particularly fond of being hot or dirty. And I’m about as physically awkward as they come.

But I know that being “forced” into those experiences and the time we spent face-to-face with nature made me the person I am today.  Building — and rebuilding — forts taught me the importance of thinking outside of the box, the value of trial and error and that failure isn’t permanent. Observing animals and insects gave me an appreciation for the tiniest creatures on our planet…even when I’m shuddering inside as I point them out to my girls. And being responsible for the care of those horses (something I’m sure would never happen in today’s litigious society!) instilled more self-confidence in me than probably any other experience in my life.

I want those same experiences for my kids!

I wanted them enough that we moved to our own little slice of heaven — which is often compared to scenes from Little House on the Prairie — despite the 30-45 minutes we have to drive through the mountains to get “to town”. It’s inconvenient, yes, and sometimes I think my kids are missing out by living out here in the boonies. Then I watch them run around outside for hours and hours without any direction from me — building their own version of a pioneer stove, foraging for dewberries and wild garlic, discovering just hatched baby praying mantises — and I know we’re where we’re supposed to be.

On Playing Outside at lifeyourway.net

In the opening chapters of this book, Louv describes the importance of nature in a million different ways, and I collected many of the “nature is…” statements I came across. He says:

“Unlike television, nature does not steal time; it amplifies it…
Inexplicable nature provokes humility…
Most of all, nature is reflected in our capacity for wonder…
Nature [is] about doing something, about direct experience –
and about not being a spectator…

Nature is beautiful, but not always pretty…
Nature is about smelling, hearing, tasting, seeing…
Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities…
Nature presents the young with something so much greater than they are;
it offers an environment where they can contemplate infinity and eternity.”

Nature inspires awe and wonder. It makes us slow down and pay attention to the smallest details. And it gives kids space to truly use their imaginations.

While our kids are currently confined to the 2.25 acres that is actually on our deed, I foresee years of exploring the fields, river and woods in their future. I’ve tweaked our homeschool curriculum for the upcoming year just to protect that time to play, and rereading Last Child in the Woods has reinforced the importance of that time spent outside — for creativity and focus and living a simple life.

That said, playing outside is not always as easy and idyllic as it sounds on the pages of a book, so next week, I’ll share some practical tips for making outside play time a priority without losing your sanity!

Today I want to hear from you, though. Is interacting with nature an important part of your personal or parenting philosophy? What are the biggest challenges to actually getting outside every day?

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