“Play is a state of mind rather than an activity.”
I grew up in England, roaming the woods and fields with the other neighborhood kids. I remember an old carthorse, hooves the size of dinner plates, who lived in the field behind our house. The older children, lifting me up to feel the soft tickle of whiskers as the horse ate the proffered sugar lump from my hand. Collecting caterpillars and frogs! The ghoulish fascination of finding a dead grass snake caught by the blades of the harvester as it mowed the meadow grass.
Making fairy houses out of twigs and leaves! Gathering the first cowslips and bluebells into bunches that wilted long before we got home. Frog spawn forming a jello surface on the pond! And the trees we climbed and fell out of, giving us a whole new respect for limitations and climbing abilities.
This was the beginning of a lifetime playing outdoors, inspiring a life-long love of the natural world and my foundation for leading a meaningful life. As an adult, I can feed a horse myself without needing to be lifted up, and I’m content to just watch caterpillars and frogs rather than collecting them in jars, but not much else has changed. Well…perhaps I’m a little more sensible about climbing trees.
Two books have been hugely influential in the direction my love for being outdoors has taken me. The first is by Stuart Brown, M.D. Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul. I’ve long been intrigued by the negative attitudes surrounding play. When I bring up the subject, I’m often met with blank looks or mutterings about it being a frivolous pursuit if we take the business of living and being productive seriously. This attitude has filtered down to influence how we educate our youngest students, side lining play in favor of an early academic focus. But as Stuart Brown explains, play is a state of mind rather than an activity.
I like to think of this state of mind as play mind, with my imagination fully engaged I’m able to tap into my creative self. Play mind is something I can experience skiing, hiking, riding my bike, following my nose in the woods, watching the birds or when I have creative aha moments at work. Running, walking, kayaking, gardening! I play to think. And Stuart Brown tells us the research is in!
” Neuroscience research is showing the fundamentals of perception, cognition, and movement are very closely connected.”
The second book is Rare Earth, by Peter Ward and Donald Brownlee. Here, the authors explain that primitive life forms, such as single celled microbes, can exist nearly everywhere, no matter how extreme circumstances are. However, for complex life forms such as animals and plants to evolve, a specific set of planetary conditions that are stable and consistent over a long period of time are required. And it would seem that the more we understand about the Universe, the conditions that give rise to complex life, are exceedingly rare.
Having a childhood that allowed for open ended, self –directed play outdoors planted the seeds of awareness and a lifelong love and fascination for the natural world around me. From personal experience and observation of my own children and young students in my classroom, it is evident that fostering a sense of wonder in young children inspires curiosity. Curiosity leads to knowledge acquisition and understanding which can develop over time into empathy, compassion and a stewardship ethic.
Just imagine! If in fact we are the only planet with such biodiversity in the visible Universe, then surely it becomes all the more important that we foster a deeply caring, compassionate connection to this unique planet we all call home. And perhaps playing outdoors is one way to do that!
Whether you’re a teacher, parent, grandparent, outdoor adventurer, environmentalist, gardener or just love to play, I hope you find something on my blog that intrigues, entertains, and inspires your inner playful, adventurous explorer. May we all experience a sense of wonder for this rare Earth we share!