David Sobel and the Importance of Wild Play

Now that it is almost summer break, I thought you teachers and parents and parent teachers may be looking for a great book to read as you relax by a pool, ocean, mountain stream, or your water body of choice. This is the first in a little summer reading series and I’ll be offering up some great reads over the next 2 months. Not all will come with a synopsis like this one, but they will all be great sources for connecting children and nature. I’m going to go a little more academic on you today, but I hope it will inspire you to delve further into this book suggestion. It’s a little longer, so stay with me!

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This is the one year old who I intend to reap the benefits of this book first hand.

Author, educator, place-based education expert, speaker, and parent David Sobel has written many fantastic books and I recommend every last one of them, but the one I want to suggest today is:

Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in The Great Outdoors

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This is his newest book and it is a great light read for those with children of their own or simply children in their lives. The book is a wonderful narrative in which Sobel reveals his nature based parenting experiences and his children’s relationships with the natural world. He reflects on his attempt to balance his logical expertise as a place based educator with his emotional parental attachments and fears and honestly reveals how both he and his children developed as compassionate productive adults through developmentally appropriate risk taking. (Sure he was already an adult, but he grew as an adult too.)

I bought the book from David Sobel himself at the Green Schools conference we presented at this past February as a gift for my sister who has a just turned one year old, but you know I read it before I gave it to her! I thought this book was so excellent that I wrote a short annotation on it for fun!! So here you go–enjoy!

The Importance of Risk and Story in the Human Nature Connection

In his most recent book Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in The Great Outdoors, place-based advocate and educator David Sobel reminds us of the importance of allowing space for risk and story in children’s lives. Whether in the realm of childhood play or adolescent dating, Sobel teaches, through both developmental theory and personal anecdotes, the ways that nature can provide the backdrop for educating modern children (and their caretakers) on how to make the most of physically and emotionally productive risks that result in happy, resilient, environmentally conscious adults.  Beyond engaging and educational “Introduction” and “Prelude” sections, Wild Play is divided into chapters focusing on three developmental stages: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence, in which each he uses his own parenting adventures as examples for how to meet the developmental needs of children in each stage while fully connecting with the natural world in ways that challenge and nurture the child by helping her understand her place in both the family and her expanding world. I find this particularly unique and informative for not only parents, but teachers, grandparents, or anyone working to keep children connected to nature because it is so rare to gather advice from someone with such extensive and grounded experience in both the academic philosophy and methodology as well as experiential parenting. As a teacher and mentor in both formal and non-formal environments (and an aunt), this book is a galvanizing and influential resource. This should come as no surprise though, as the work comes from one of the foremost respected living progressive educators; so a peek into his personal journey as a parent sheds light on the way he has developed and experimented with his professional accomplishments.

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Risk builds confidence–he made it out of this one independently.

An overriding them of the book that is timely and incredibly valuable in the current climate of fear based parenting and litigation, is that of the importance of risk. Sobel states:

“In evaluating what I was prepared to let my children do in the outdoors, I found my self moving away from a mind-set of ‘risk assessment’ to a mind-set of ‘risk-benefit analysis.’ In other words, it’s important to develop a balanced understanding of both the risks and the benefits of play behavior. All play, including nature play, involves some risk, but that’s part of the value: learning how to measure the risk and behave appropriately. The riskiness of play is, to a certain extent, its benefit. Take all the risk out of the situation and it’s no fun – and not terribly beneficial” (Sobel, 112-13).

Sobel balances his logical desire to let his children face physical and emotional risk with his anxiety and paternal desire to protect his children. He is honest about his feelings in each of the anecdotes in a way that humanizes the theory and helps adults feel more confident about the short and long term benefits of allowing their children to face risk. In early childhood, risk is approached as the child begins to gain independence and explore her connection with and develop empathy toward the natural world and all its inhabitants. While “risk-benefit analysis” at this age is minimal, and the focus is more on language development as a way of fostering empathy and connection to place, children must be allowed to climb, dig, eat dirt, and explore nearby nature in developmentally appropriate ways with an attentive, but not overbearing, adult. Sobel advises that during early childhood nature exploration and in the conversations that follow, we must “encourage language that conveys we are a part of nature and it is a part of us” (55) to help build empathetic lifetime bonds with their natural world.

As children enter middle childhood, Sobel begins to clarify the ways in which he introduced his children to “risk-benefit analysis” as they developmentally craved a larger environment in which to roam with family, friends, and independently. Quoting Lady Allen of Hurtwood (twentieth century leader in the European adventure playgrounds movement), Sobel reminds us that however nerve wracking it is for the adults, for the children, “Better a broken bone than a broken spirit” (113). At this stage children desire to apply the empathy developed in early childhood to a deeper bond with their natural world. At this stage they begin to challenge and explore that which sparked their wonder in early childhood. As adults, we must refrain from coddling and overprotection and instead, provide children with appropriate challenges in nature that build self-esteem, an understanding of natural history, and a sense of place and continued wonder within their world.

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Risk taking teen style!

In adolescence, it is incredibly important not to overlook the developmental desire for greater social relationships for the grounding and empowerment that nature provides. This is a time that nature can provide the necessary rites of passage that teens so desperately seek. Sobel advises that “…during..adolescent development…help them find the right kinds of challenges at the right stages for their unique personalities…These experiences test the young person’s mettle and help him move from carefree childhood into responsible adulthood” (187). This is where lessons of “risk-benefit analysis” can be applied by the teen in both natural and social situations. Sobel provides numerous examples of where his own children applied a beneficial nature risk experience to a positive choice in a risky social experience. Isn’t the ability for the young adults we care about to be able to make personal and professional choices, empowered by a strong sense of value and risk assessment and resiliency, what we hope for as caretakers and educators? Well, they must be given the repeated chance to learn how to make these type of choices and assessments in childhood if they are to make them in adolescence and adulthood and nature is the perfect testing ground.

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Story nurtures connection and imagination

Apart from an exploration of the developmental significance of risk, Sobel also addresses the importance of story in our lives as a way to connect with nature and each other. He explains how by using story and metaphor to help children understand their relationship to their natural world, we nurture ecological literacy and systems thinking. He recommends the practice of “talking local” in early childhood which involves engaging children in conversations about objects in their natural environment rather than referencing abstract characters. He also recommends using the words that young children develop for things as a way of using their own dialects to explain their world to them (55). Additionally, and perhaps controversially in some circles, he advocates for anthropomorphism and states it creates “an important step toward ecological consciousness” and that “…personifying aspects of nature is a way of creating living bonds with an ecosystem” (66).

As the child progresses into middle childhood, Sobel delves deeper into the world of story. He believes that stories are “one of the crucial elements of parenting children into nature” (76) and can help them envision the world they want to live in (83). In a story, children can explore social and natural situations and relationships, and on the opposite side, a story can help a child assimilate an experience. Developmentally, in this stage the child shifts her focus from revolving around family and self to her wider environment. In an expanding world, story can help children in middle childhood understand the new relationships they are building with place and people, while continuing to bond with the wonder and magic they discover as they broaden their natural horizons and abilities. Even though in this stage the child is becoming increasingly independent within her environment, it is still incredibly important to create family experience and ritual that will grow with and support the child as she progresses into adolescence. Sobel illustrates this concept through his choice to engage his children, and self, into the regionally appropriate outdoor activity of downhill skiing, which I found interesting as this was an important element of my own family’s culture and a touchstone for me as I transitioned from childhood to adolescence.

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Hitting the slopes is still one of my favorite ways to challenge myself and the lift is a great time to process life out in nature.

Story in adolescence is different from the obvious methods of childhood. It becomes an element of the self exploration integral to this stage and necessary to the development of an inward exploration of self.  Within the creation of nature based rites of passage that test the physical and mental prowess of the adolescent, we must allow time for refection and application to social action. Teens need time for what appears to be doing nothing. In actuality, they are not just “hanging out,” but are navigating social situations in which they encounter emotional and mental risk. Sobel illustrates this through examples of how through a foundation of dialogue and story, he kept the channels of communication open throughout the teen years of both his children; which as anyone with adolescent experience knows, is extremely beneficial for helping teens navigate this time of physical and emotional changes. By providing adolescents with a basis in a language of nature and careful balance of friends, family, reflection, and physical challenges in wild nature, we provide them with the resources needed to process their experiences and apply them to the natural bonds built in childhood. This will, in turn, develop into a deep seated environmental ethic that grounds them in confidence, peace, place, and a vision of the world they want to create for themselves.

This book as an ally for adults who, like Sobel, desire “that their children grow up with dirt under their fingernails, glints of sunlight in their eyes, and a deep sense of hope about life on earth” (19). In the current fearful and hurried style of child rearing, Wild Play is an invaluable resource for affecting a shift in adult behavior toward nurturing the child’s need for a strong connection with nature, while providing insight into the ways that responsible risk coupled with story’s ability to assimilate nature experience is physically and emotionally beneficial for both parent and child. We must provide children with the developmentally necessary foundations in which to envision, and then build, the future they want; beginning with a strong bond to the natural world, a sense of wonder and place, and a tenacious ability to both think and act ecologically. Nature, play, wonder, risk, and family are the addends for an equation that results in a sum of happiness, confidence, resiliency, and a healthy natural world.

Works Cited

Sobel, David. Wild Play: Parenting Adventures In The Great Outdoors. San Francisco: Sierra Club, 2011. Print.

Seeds to Sprout:

You don’t have to take my word for it- a review by the New Hampshire Sentinel Source

Excerpts from the book on David Sobel’s C&NN Connect page

Look, Don’t Touch: The Problem with Environmental Eudcation– an Orion Magazine article by David Sobel

Find Wild Play at your local library or independent bookstore, but if you want a little more info on it or just can’t find it anywhere for some reason and are desperate, there’s always the online megastore that’s named after a South American river as a last resort.

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Why yes, it was blowing my mind to be on this poster with David Sobel-not to mention these other amazing authors!!

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