Preteens and Teens: How to Play

We seem to have an idea in our culture that we need manufactured objects for play. Even when we do play outside, we tend to stick to manufactured spaces like parks, sports fields, trails, etc. It seems so bewildering to imagine what we would do without these things. But kids don't have that problem.

The things the kids in my world get up to with a bit of wilderness and no rules are really quite beautiful. They develop the most complex socio/economic systems which basically mimic those of their parents. They take whatever the wilderness offers them and weave it into their play, taking on various jobs, trading for services, objects and 'money' (this week it was alder catkins), hiring each other and volunteering, maintaining the spaces they create and filling in their world with creativity, philosophical/moral conversations, and a whole lot of laughter.

These aren't 6-year-olds. These are 9 to 13-year-olds. They are squatting bare- and boot-footed in a creek (above), diverting clean water for a handwashing station, and creating moss-on-bark sponges to scrub their handmade wooden planter pots which they plan to sell at the pet (slug) and variety store over to the right, on a log. On the surface, to those of us accustomed to the commercially-available expectations of preteens, it looks like their play is childish. But if you really pay attention you see that the things they're working through here are in fact very mature. I heard conversations ranging from impacts of climate change to fair wages to questions of morality in petting zoos and circuses and ethics of catching wild animals, to gender equality, particle physics and nutritional values of wild foods. Really. With 0 adult input, these are just a few of the conversations that came up in 4 hours of wilderness play, yesterday.

I could not dream up these things. I can only give them space to do it themselves.

This is what happens when you leave the manufactured toys, spaces and rules behind and leave kids to play with nothing but time and lack of constraints. Oh -- and some wilderness at their disposal. Some trees to climb. Creeks to get muddy in. Nobody standing around injecting teachable moments or safety concerns.

Kids don't need us to tell them how to play and learn. They need us to get out of their way.