OF PLACE AND EDUCATION
By CHRISTINA OLIVA and DAVID SOBEL
Photo Credits, Eric Aldrich
David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England.
The smell of salt is in the air. I am eight years old and Hurricane Bob has just assailed my tiny hometown in Long Island. The sky is now calm, but less then 24 hours ago a small tornado was on course for my house. Luckily (or unluckily to my eight year old self), my favorite tree took the tornado head on, sending it in another direction. I am standing on my back porch, assessing the damage. Tears race down my cheeks. I decide to take a final farewell climb, although the tree is now lying on the ground. I lumber up the massive trunk and decide to crawl my way to the top, a spot I’ve never had the luxury of visiting before. I sit amongst the smaller branches of the crown and take a look around. Suddenly, I am struck with the most glorious idea and a wide smile swells across my face. I no longer have a tree, but I have my very own tree fort. Immediately I begin to work on my new home, storing crab apples in this nook for dinner, laying leaves over there for my bed, and tidying up the broken branches so I will have room for guests. [Christina Oliva]
Christina’s tree fort memories from age eight are illustrative of the vivid and long-lasting impact that fort play has on personal consciousness. She, like many others, spent countless hours working on, playing in and defending her fort-home. Fort-building was an important part of childhood for many of us growing up in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s if we had access to safe play areas and parents who encouraged independent play in the natural world. It is a form of childhood play that extends back to our hunting and gathering heritage. The bushhouse building and play hunting of children in aboriginal societies were an essential part of developing basic survival skills. Over time, the need to develop survival skills faded away, but the pleasure and instinctual interest in building forts remains. And fort-building, when allowed by parents and conservation organizations, still serves as an important vehicle for individuation and bonding with the natural world.
Despite these values, fort-building is a disappearing pastime. In the early 21st century, where urbanization, intense parental fears and strict property regulations reign, children are being denied access to the space, materials, freedom and time necessary to engage in fort-building activities. Fort-building is dismissed as “ dangerous” destructive” or a “ nuisance.” Many nature centers and conservation organizations frown upon children exploring their property beyond walking on the trails. A litany of rules and restrictions exist: “Stay on the Trails! Don’t Touch!, Don’t Feed the Animals!, Take Only Pictures, Leave Only Footprints! It’s as if natural areas have become museums. In “Eden in a Vacant Lot” Robert Michael Pyle (2002) remarks, “For special places to work their magic on kids, they need to be able to do some clamber and damage. The need to be free to climb trees, muck about, catch things, and get wet” above all, to leave the trail.” Pyle attributes the emergence of his environmental values and professional career to his mucking about in the High Line Canal, a weedy, neglected irrigation ditch on the outskirts of Denver. Luckily for him and us, it wasn’t overseen by a bunch of protective docents. His mucking about led to his loving the natural world and his eventual preservationist commitment as one of America’s pre-eminent lepidopterists. In other words, if we want children to develop a love for the natural world, we need to allow them to play freely in it, interact with its creatures and manipulate it. As E. O. Wilson (1995) nicely summarizes,
“Hands on experience at the critical time, not systematic knowledge is what counts in the making of a naturalist. Better to be an untutored savage for a while and not to know the names or anatomical detail. Better to spend long stretches of time just searching and dreaming.”
With an increasing amount of research linking reduction in nature exposure to increased child obesity, ADHD, and depression (Louv, 2006), it’s in everyone’s best interest for children to love playing outside. And from a conservation organization’s perspective, we want children to develop the commitment to protect land for generations to come. Our challenge then is to find ways for children to become one with nature. As Pyle (1998) says, we need to provide “places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin.” Building and playing in a fort is one significant way that children bond with the natural world. The fort is the “home away from home,” the opportunity to feel comfortable out in nature, away from the protected and known world of house and family. (Sobel, 1992). Instead of forbidding the construction of kids’ forts on protected properties, as some conservation organizations do, we should be encouraging fort building.
One conservation organization that promotes children’s freedom to roam, play and build on preservation land is The Harris Center for Conservation Education. The Harris Center is a New Hampshire land preservation and education organization with one of the most comprehensive family engagement and education programs in northern New England. It recognizes that many adults with environmental values speak fondly of childhood experiences like fort building and attribute their land preservation values to these early experiences. Thus, this past fall, the Harris Center offered a program entitled “The Forts, Shelters and Shanties Club”. Their rationale was that if wild play leads to adult environmental behaviors (Wells and Leckies, 2006), then fort- building would be one component of developing citizens committed to protecting and preserving New Hampshire wildlands.
When Christina was presented with the opportunity to be the program leader, she jumped at the chance to provide children with the same magical experience she had as a child. Just reading the announcement for the program brought her back to her childhood. The Harris Center’s advertisement read:
Build it, live it and love it! If you love building forts and want to find out how to build different styles of forts, shelters and even shanties, here’s your chance. Adventure awaits you in this club, as you create and build a wide range of different styles of outdoor and even a few indoor forts. Also included will be knot tying, fire building, and wild tool construction.
“Within 24 hours of the ad’s circulation, the program was full” , commented Harris Center Outreach Coordinator and creator of the forts program, Susie Spikol. Although the program was only open to nine children, many more wanted to join the afterschool club, demonstrating a strong desire for children to partake in fort-building activities. Christina’s account below shows boys having the opportunity to be, as E. O Wilson describes, “ untutored savages.”
Leaves crunching underfoot, I lead a group of enthusiastic boys into the woods. We survey a forest patch looking for just the right place to call home. The spot must have the right combination of seclusion, intrigue and security. I spot a boulder patch to the right of the trail and point it out to the gang. Ooh’s and Ah’s are followed by running and the slaps of backpacks hitting the ground. The boys are up on boulders, ripping branches from trees and banging sticks against each other before I even place my bag on the ground. The twenty minutes of indoor discussion about respecting nature, each other, safety and listening that preceded our search for â€œclub territoryâ€ was long forgotten. The animals were loose and loving life. Their zeal for building forts was too much for the boys to contain in their six and seven year old bodies. Holding on to safety as my last stance, I took a step back and gave the boys the freedom they so desperately desired.
Although the first session of the fort-building program started off more unruly than I had hoped, the children had a wonderful time. One boy named Keenan exclaimed, “I’m not going home. I am going to live in my fort forever.” With each following session, the boys became more focused and diligent in their work. Before they arrived each Wednesday afternoon, I would build a different style fort or shelter to provide a creative and structural foundation. The boys always enjoyed looking at and exploring my forts, but were more interested in continuing work on the forts they had begun on the first afternoon of the club. That is to say, the older boys were more interested in continuing construction. I noticed a big divide amongst the six year old boys and the seven year old boys. While the older boys worked hard to ensure their fort roofs were solid and tight, the younger boys delighted in participating in dramatic play. They would casually work on their forts and then one would yell, “I’m from El Salvador and I’ve got you” then they would all take off shooting each other with their stick guns.
Eventually, the boys settled into the routine of meeting around the fire circle at the start of each fort-building afternoon and discussing ways in which we could improve on the fort village and enhance play. A few boys took their own initiatives to expand fort-building activities. Seeing that Ian was using a stick to bore at a dead limb, I inquired as to what he was working on. Ian replied, “I am making this bird feeder, so then a bear will see all the birds and think “ Oh, there must be some food over there, and when it comes over well spear it” . Another boy named Trevor was working hard collecting and hiding acorns in his fort. He told me, “ I have to collect enough acorns to get through the winter. You know, like the chipmunks.” I told him and a boy named Jamison how people used to take acorns, boil them and then mash them into a flour to make bread. With this granule of information, Jamison led the whole group of boys to crushing and eating the insides of acorns. Trevor nonchalantly commented, “ If you eat just a little, they’re not bad.” In addition to bear traps and acorn collection, the boys made” fish scalers, spears, bows and arrows, knives, pit traps and box traps. The desire to build a shelter and carve out a self-sufficient existence in the woods lives deep in children’s genes and readily expresses itself when the right conditions are provided.
After all of our discussions about the materials we would need to “ survive” in our forts, and placing emphasis on the objects we could make from the forest resources, I thought it would be exciting for the children to see some real artifacts and practice some real survival skills. For our last session, I invited a close friend and primitive skills expert, Chris Wood, to share some of his handmade bows, arrows, baskets and bow drill fire kits with the fort-builders. Chris conducted a shooting and fire-making demonstration. The boys were truly captivated. Afterwards, we split the boys into smaller groups and had them practice using the bow drill sets. Again, the older boys stuck with it — determination to learn the skill furrowed their brows. The younger boys, not yet having the physical control for working a bow drill set, asked to go make final visits to their forts, and as they scurried off into the dark I could hear them pretend shooting at each other.
To end the evening, we all gathered round our truly handmade fire and the boys shared fort stories I asked them to prepare. While smiles abounded throughout the program, farewells consisted of a mix of tears and protests to stay longer. Jamison approached me and asked, “ Is there going to be another fort building club next year? I think there should be one in the winter, spring, summer and fall” . Another fort-builder named Andrew said, “ Fort building day is my favorite day of the week!” He then followed with, “ Are you sure we don’t have another class next week?”
Every Wednesday we met, I was magically transported back to my own childhood days of playing in my tree fort, creating elaborate characters and plots, and feeling as if I was a part of something truly my own. If I could do it all over again, I would let go more. As a naturalist educator, I often feel as if I must always teach something. While there is virtue in providing specific information, I think that little fort-builders just need to build. They don’t need more instruction or structure they get enough of that at school. Instead, as Edith Cobb said about children in middle childhood, they want most to “ to make a world in which to find a place to discover a self.” The village they had built was the world, their individual forts were their places and their play adventures at survival were early forays at discovering a self.
Conservation organizations, like The Harris Center for Conservation Education, provide one of the great resources for connecting children with nature â€“nearby conserved land. National and state parks are valuable resources, but they’re often far away from the real action. Local and regional conservation organizations and land trusts acquire and make accessible the land that is closest to where children live and play “ sometimes in their own backyards. The problem is, as Peter Forbes (2006) recently pointed out, “ [Most] conservationists have been very good at protecting places, and pretty lousy at protecting relationships” Conservationists are almost twice as likely to post their land.” In other words, most conservation organizations are good at protecting land, but not as good at encouraging community members, especially children, to use the land. And, as we mentioned earlier, we are learning that children who have access to “ wild nature play” (Wells and Leckies, 2006) are the children who grow up to be environmentally “responsible adults” the kind of people who want to preserve land. It follows that for both the good of children, and the future good of land trusts, figuring out ways to open up land trust preserves for child play would be beneficial.
The whole idea of “ take only pictures, leave only footprints” is an ethic we should mature into. In childhood, children should collect blueberries, get muddy, build forts, climb trees, and hunt deer. And they should do all those things on land trust properties because once the land gets under their fingernails and inside their stomachs, they will love and respect it and want to save it. We can’t just save land and lock it up. We’ve got to figure out how to build relationships between the people of the community and these preserved places. One way to build that relationship is to encourage children to play on the land. Building a fort in the woods is the child’s way of making a home away from home in the natural world. This sense of personally crafted safety and security in the woods is the foundation for environmental values and behaviors in adulthood.
This article was originally published in PlayRights: Journal of International Play Association, Vancouver, BC, April, 2009. It appears in Community Works Journal with the generous permission of the publisher. More information on The International Play Association can be found at: www.ipaworld.org
About the Author
David Sobel is a regular essayist and contributing editor of Community Works Journal and is a Senior Faculty in the Education Department at Antioch University New England. He also coordinates Antioch’s new Nature-based Early Childhood program. Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, Through his writing, speaking, and teaching, David plays a major role in what has become a national movement promoting place-based education, an approach that has blossomed — from studying biology in the school yard to creating mapping businesses, and other neighborhood services. Each is an exercise in changing the way students learn about the environment and their place in it. David advocates using students’ home turf to study topics and issues related to sustainability, not just ecology but also local history, culture, and the economy. David is the author of a number of books including Children’s Special Places and Beyond Ecophobia.
Cobb, E., (1959) “The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood,” Daedalus,88(3).
Forbes, P. (2006) “Creating a New Land Movement for Children,” lecture at Children in Nature Conference, National Conservation Training Center, Shepardston, WV, 8 September 2006.
Louv, R. (2006) Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. New York: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill.
Pyle, R., (1998) The Thunder Tree: Lessons from an Urban Wildland, Lyons Press,
Pyle, R. (2002) Eden in a Vacant Lot: Special Places, Species, and Kids in the Neighborhood of Life. In Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations, edited by P. Kahn and S. Kellert. Cambridge: MIT Press. Pp. 305–327.
Sobel, David, (1992), Children’s Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts,
Dens and Bushhouses in Middle Childhood, Zephyr Press, Tucson, AZ.
(currently published by Wayne State University Press, reissued 2002)
Wells, N and Lekies, K., (2006), “Nature and the Life Course: Pathways from Childhood Nature Experiences to Adult Environmentalism,” 16 (1).
Retrieved from www.colorado.edu/journal/cye/.
Wilson, E. O., (1994) Naturalist, Island Press, Washington D.C.
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