Sustainability and Free Play

Jake&Zoe at the Pond
Photo by Marv

I’ve begun to think about the relationship between free play and sustainability for our planet. Does the early childhood experience of hiding behind a wide tree trunk while playing hide and seek or daydreaming in a field of high grass as I did in childhood lead one to equate happiness, a sense of well being, with nature?

Imagine— if somehow we could imbue the present generation with enough connection and joy for the out of doors as for their I-phone or latest X-man offering— how they might influence and steer the environment challenges which are already upon us.

In preparing this blog, I went to my files to retrieve an article, Wild in the Streets, about the loss of free play, The Journal of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, May/June Issue, 1997. I was in private practice and ordered a dozen copies to distribute to highly anxious two career parents who were struggling with the demands of over-scheduled lives and its effects on their children.

Given the explosive shift in global temperatures, weather patterns and Artic ice melts, Laura van Dam’s citation of scientific research on the benefits of play on long-term development are particularly salient now. As a family therapist trained in systems thinking, I was struck by how a family’s daily choices and the rhythms of their everyday life affected mood and ease of adaption.

And while no doubt everyone can find nurturing from the natural world, children who need an alternative to unhappy home situations —and over scheduling, a break from technology —may particularly benefit from quietude outside.

I introduced the notion of “play,” shifting the rhythms of structured activities to more spontaneous, out of doors activities, to my clients. Those with childhood experiences in nature tapped into their positive memories and embraced the notion of intentional choice. Clients who clung to structure resisted and needed point-by-point homework assignments to dip their toes into what seemed unnatural. In time, perhaps because of my own certitude in the benefits of embracing the natural rhythms in one’s life, I helped families flex and find more balance.

Given the merchandise hawking of the latest technological gismo and our lemming impulse to follow, the challenge of offering the next generation quietude in nature is more daunting. Yet, through Facebook posts, I experience possibility and hope reflected in the many stories and pictures of my colleagues raising children in New York City or in forested Greenfield, MA, where they offer their children extensive opportunity for play, connection and creativity in the out of doors.

We are what we experience. I am grateful for long years of quietude, and my own childhood experience of long hours in backyard play and roaming in nature, passed on to my children and grandchildren. van Dam cites—

Out door experiences, particularly before adulthood, is the most frequent motive people give for caring for the environment.

 Time outdoors can nurture a deep concern about the natural world.

….the natural environment offers space and time for reflecting on one’s own— which is critical to developing a sense of self.

 The question at hand—how does one train the self as well as the next generation to shift attention to the larger issues of global warming and its effects? I would be grateful if you could share your experience in my comments section or on Facebook.





16 thoughts on “Sustainability and Free Play

  1. Rosemary Booth

    This subject feels on the mark for today, and I found the writer’s quiet tone reinforced her idea of return to a quieter place, a nature-filled one. The essay also seems to subtly imply that sustainability on a personal level requires an inner shift as much as movement outdoors–finding a quietness inside.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Rosemary, thank you for your reflection. The heart connection is difficult to ascribe and I’m pleased you caught it.

  2. Patricia Rogers

    Faye…interesting to think about how our childhood experiences in nature may effect our commitment to climate change in adulthood. i had a friend next door who just visited from florida… we were talking about how much we enjoyed exploring “down by the lake” as kids. i remember sucking on the honeysuckle and finding birds nests with tiny blue eggs in them. My nephew who works for the U.S. wildlife and fisheries just wrote to his boss about how pleased he is that his 15 yr old son is now a committed fisherman…even forgoes his iPhone to go fishing with dad. So I’m feeling there may be hope for the next generation.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      What a lovely, generational story and such a sensitive and smart young man to realize how the I-Phone can impede his focus and calm as he castes and waits. He’s hooked!

  3. Hy Kempler

    Having grown up in the city I can’t relate to playing in nature as an experience.
    I grew up using the streets made of concrete and asphalt and the games mostly sports that those invited. What will get younger folks to treasure nature and and our environment is a greater awareness and responsibility for preserving the gifts that they offer us. Dare I speak of the necessity for developing a sense of obligation.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      I take your point about obligation and believe we need both younger folk who lead with deep seated “heart” and those who take heart by following their moral obligation. I imagine that as a young boy on those concrete pavements, you occasionally looked up at the sky and took special note on clear days when the temperatures were just right for your game. You attended, for how could you not, given your devotion to the out of doors and engagement with environmental issues in the present. This conversation helps me to take note of the fact that it is through attentiveness, immersion, and connection that younger people will have heart and engage others of the obligation to take heart.

  4. sheila kempler

    Thanks for the reflections .
    The streets of Brooklyn where we played “Off the wall,Stoop ball, Jump rope, potchy”, and yes, Hide and go seek lacked the green grassy garden expances you mention from very different outdoor experiences. So how did we both end up loving nature and the outdoors. Of course we did go to the catskills some summers, swam at the beaches we got to by train. What’s missing in those early years may be what is appreciated when we”re lucky enough to own it. Of course, we were always outdoors growing up. No room inside. Outdoors is where you saw friends, played, wandered the streets. skated.

    So, I feel grateful that I’m able to enjoy the outdoors and nature and that the love of the environment has been transmitted to my kids.


    1. sheila kempler

      I meant to say we transmit our love of the natural world, of play through our behavior. It’s the legacy they receive
      daily from us as we lament threats to our parks, our oceans and wonder how to make a difference.
      I like to think we make a difference at least to a few important people in our lives.

      1. fayewriter Post author

        Yes, I totally agree with your choice of the verb “transmit”, how we transmit out appreciation of nature through our behavior. I would say that you embody and live your love of nature every day, Sheila! And yes, clearly you and Hy have imparted your love of nature AND concerns to your children.

    2. fayewriter Post author

      Yes, Sheila, I would imagine the contrast of those Catskills explorations caught your attention and nourished you in a special way given your joy and appreciation of the outdoors. Also the fact that so much of your engagement with others and the freedom to explore the streets, provided you with many opportunities to take in and absorb mother nature… for she is everywhere!

      1. sheila kempler

        thanks Faye. Nice reflextions that i was happy to reflect on in response to your blog.
        There’s a group of campers here this summer whose task is planting gardens with a goal of absorbing rainwater and removing polutants, putting in rocks and drainage pipes in order to keep the lake clean. Not only god for the environment but pretty. There ar people planting flowers everywhere. There is some good stuff happening. Let’s be grateful.

        1. fayewriter Post author

          Sheila, how exciting to be close up and to gain an appreciation of the camper’s effort to keep the lake clean. I would like to understand more about the plan to plant gardens in a specific way will help remove pollutants and keep the lake clean! Seems very forward thinking… would love to chat at some point about what you observe and understand! Yes, grateful for the idea of the effort.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Kathi, never too late! I’ve been engaged with this topic for a long the but even more so now that I am a grandparent and we have a president who is oblivious to environmental issues.

  5. Kat Fitzpatrick

    Hi Faye! I have been thinking about this topic since you posted it. I have taught outdoor education and creative writing classes in a variety of venues. There have been a few instances where I was able to combine them, usually in the form of hiking and writing. One time a young man, who admitted that he hadn’t really wanted to attend my session, said after a writing practice in the woods, “I went outside and my mind just opened up.”

    It is my deepest dream to combine outdoor settings and writing in the future.

    1. fayewriter Post author

      Hi Kat, I am excited to learn of your deepest dream and support you 100%. I adopted a practice called soul tracking when I had a therapy practice. I took people to a natural setting, did a brief meditative exercise and instructed them to mindfully engage with the trees, flora, around them until they were draw to one that resonated. I then worked with each person on what the connection evoked. Afterwards, we sat and wrote about the experience and read aloud, if it felt right. I can attest to so many rich and vital experiences which clients (and I) referred to afterwards in therapy.

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