Wild Places to Play

“In wildness is the preservation of the world” Thoreau told us. For Blog Action Day today, I want to share with you why I think that preserving small remnants of wildness is crucial for our children. And the world.

As the Badlands appeared ten thousand feet beneath the plane a few jet-minutes east of Rapid City, I envied the pilot’s view of the rugged outline of Black Hills north of town, and south, of the high dome of buffalo-browsed Custer State Park. Presidential visages of Mt. Rushmore loomed not twenty miles from my daughter’s house. What a wild kingdom our newborn grand daughter Taryn and her six year old sister Abby might come to know here!

Fifteen minutes from the airport, we turned into the driveway of a hillside suburban home. Since we were out that way in May, they’d had some landscaping done, and the front yard was orderly, trimmed and tamed. The back was fenced now, a green quarter-acre rectangle with the standard swing set that incorporated what passes these days for a tree house with a yellow plastic slide.

But by the second day of our visit, we realized that that Abby spends most of her “play time” indoors. In the midst of so much sky and magnificent geography, she might as well be living in the ‘burbs of Anyplace USA. In her neat, manicured back yard, there are no “rough edges” to challenge her muscles or entice her curiosity and imagination. There are no unknowns to explore and discover in the way she does when she creates her own play for entire afternoon here on Goose Creek once or twice a year.

Abby doesn’t experience wildness near home that at her age I knew so well in a Birmingham suburb long ago. I see now how very important those intimate microcosms of the greater landscape have been in kindling in me and others a connection and attachment to the natural world. They are the seed-beds of belonging to the places and planet where we live, and so many of today’s children never know them.

I’m talking here about patches no larger–and in many cases much smaller–than our grand daughters’ back yard: a vacant lot on the cul-de-sac; a steep bank on the edge of the grammar school property; the hedgerow at our uncle’s house; and the pond where my mother took me to fish-and more often than not, I abandoned my pole and explored the muddy banks instead.

But those half-acres childhood wilds are harder to find these days, and they have become less permissible places to play on one’s own. Unvisited, they no longer seem necessary or magic or special in the way they were for me and my friends. Today’s children play indoors. They are taxied to and from team sports in the SUV. The children are safe in their fortress-homes.

While dinner cooked, Abby and I played “hide the croquet ball” among the foundation plantings. Beside the house, angular, crushed native stone mulched the junipers. We sat down and began to turn the shards of rock, looking at the sparkly flecks in the granite, choosing out the waxy-translucent pieces of quartz into a separate pile.

“Abby, did you know that every one of these little rocks was once part of a mountain?” She was amazed to know this. Sitting tailor-fashion in the shade, we talked about how the mountains had pushed up and over time worn away. We talked about sand and soil, about plants and erosion and rivers and beaches.

I mentioned how a rock tumbler could do to these stones what the abrasion of water had done over time, making them smooth, polished and like jewels. Abby reminded me of this machinery a dozen times before we left to return to Virginia. Could she have a rock tumbler? I think I know now what the maternal grandfather will be sending the girls for Christmas this year.

Meanwhile, closer to home, parks are being created in downtown Floyd. Trail systems are coming together across the county. Farm land and woodlands are being preserved in conservation easements. And so many Floyd County kids still have the possibility of those safe, rough edges in which to grow their confidence, imaginations, muscles and sense of kinship with the natural world.

We should be thankful for these wilderness realms accessible to our young people. It turns out they are probably more important than we have realized for the healthy growth of personalities, character and a well-adjusted mind and attitude in later life.

So many of our great historical figures relate their early visions of connectedness to earth and society back to their young years reading in tree houses, building forts in the woods, chasing frogs beside a farm pond, and seeing the shapes of the future in clouds from a private sanctuary of shrubs just beyond the edge of things.

Give your young children and grand children the permission, freedom and encouragement to enjoy their own wild kingdoms near home. This legacy you bestow may go on and on, so that a little girl a half-dozen generations from today will chose to fashion her own bow-and-arrow from a piece of string and a limber stick she finds in the woods rather than spend the day shopping for new earbuds at the Sky Mall.

Share this with your friends!

Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Amen to this, Fred. So many children now experience the world through a computer screen. So much of their world is virtual, and they feel little connection to the natural. To stretch our limited budget so that we could have at least a couple of acres of wildland, we have always lived in tiny houses or trailers. But it has been well worth it. Though our indoor space was limited, our outdoor space seemed infinite. And both of our teenage children now love the outdoors–my son is a birdwatcher who loves to hike, and my daughter writes the loveliest poetry about her vision of the natural world.

  2. Very well put. I watch my grandkids next door, playing in the creek or treehouse, or riding the trails on their bikes and 4-wheelers. They are all computer literate, can IM me with their keyboard skills, they get taxied to soccer and piano practice, but when they are home between homework and chores they are outside exploring the woods. It does a body good to see them and hear their laughter echoing up through the valley to our house!

  3. my friend and i were discussing this just the other day as our kids played at a nearby park along the potomac river. we were pondering why there are hardly ever any kids at the parks when we go. it was a gorgeous day and we couldn’t resist taking the kids there. but i’ve noticed since i’ve had my son, that parks are hardly ever crowded like they were when i was growing up…. i guess all the kids are in their ‘fortresses’ as you said or at all the organized outdoor activities such as sports team practices. i think it’s sad….

    i remember studying about this trend in my child development classes… how we are forcing ‘organized, structured’ play on our kids too early….. they should be doing imaginative play outside at that age…..

  4. Fred – keep on teaching Abby about the great outdoors. My grand-daughter loves to spend time outside…….She helps me in the gardens when she is here. She can tell you the life cycle of the butterflies. Now in kindergarten, she is studying the “letter of the week”. I asked her Mom if Helena’s teacher accepts guest speakers as I have a poster that I made several years ago for a display at the Wild Bird Center. I made photographs of the life cycles of a monarch & a black swallowtail – it would make a great presentation for the letter “C” – both a caterpillar and a chrysalis, altho 5 year olds would relate to cocoon. Helena’s Mom is going to talk to the teacher to find out if Grandma D will be able to come & teach.

  5. Another note about teaching children about the great outdoors…….Helena loves going to the MO Botanical Garden……..they have a Children’s Garden where the little ones can learn about plants, the prairies and how our earth evolves. Helena loves the Gardens – we went last week. She especially loves the Japanese Garden. There is a large lake filled with koi – Helena delights feeding them. We go to the Gardens several times a year to enjoy each season.