Why I Let Kids Play Without Rules in the Wilderness

The first thing I do when I meet with a new group of kids in the woods is sit down and talk. I like to hear what they're hoping to do in the wilderness and what their expectations or concerns are. Then we talk about rules. Well, more to the point, I talk about our lack of rules. I say, "You can do anything you want, and please keep yourself and all the other living inhabitants of this forest safe." 

In that one statement, I hand over the reins. Some kids are excited at discovering new freedom; others are terrified, as they feel overwhelmed by the responsibility, or just plain stunned and unsure what to do without a clear path. So we talk some more. There are always lots of questions, both right off the bat, and continuing throughout our time, together.

"So can I eat Colton's cookies?"

"Well I don't know. Why don't you ask Colton? Colton, Do you feel safe?" (You never know. Colton's mouth is full of cookies; maybe he swallows, and shares the cookies! Maybe he just says 'no'.)

"Is she allowed to climb that tree?"

"Yes of course. Do you feel safe up there?" ... "No? It seems she needs some coaching to come down."

Or maybe I see someone hauling moss off a maple tree, and I ask them to consider why the moss is living on that tree and how the act of pulling it off might affect the other things living in the woods. (The moss may die, the maple needs the moss to retain moisture, and the various plants and insects living in the moss need it, too.)

We do a LOT of talking. We do a lot of considering. And by "we", I truly mean the group; not the condescending "we" of adults who really mean "I". The kids sometimes police each other, and we talk about that, too--how having responsibility and independence means also allowing others to have their own. Usually after a day or two the group is comfortable being in charge of their own actions. This is when all the magic really begins. 

The Cheese Restaurant was magic like that. I was just settling into a forested hillside with a group of eight-to-twelve-year-olds, looking at one child's collection of snails on a piece of bark, when another child called frantically from about thirty feet away: "Stop them! Stop them!" It was the kind of panicked-sounding cry that actually made me jump up and hurry over, to where two boys were passionately destroying a large, rotten Douglas fir stump. 

I collected myself again, and asked nonchalantly how they were doing. They responded with guttural sounds, orange powder of wood still flying in all directions. In a couple of minutes they'd already pulled apart about ten percent of the stump. So I pulled out my secret weapon, started digging in the orange powder, and cast my eyes all over the place until I found something cool, then said excitedly, "Oh wait! Let me save this millipede!!" I pulled it out and held it up.

"What?" They stopped tearing at the crumbling stump and looked at my outstretched hand. "Gross!" 

"It's not gross. It's just climbing on my hand. Want to hold it?" One backed away and the other stuck out his hand. The millipede cycled its flow of tiny legs across his skin and he shiveredhas he felt it. The other boy approached with a large piece of bark and suggested he put the millipede on, with the cheese.

"Cheese?" I asked.

"Yes, I'm having a cheese restaurant. This is cheddar." And he dumped a handful of orange powdered wood onto the piece of bark, next to the millipede, who immediately sought cover in the powder."

"You ruined his home", moaned the child who had originally called me up to stop these boys from breaking the stump. She looked shaken. In an effort to diffuse the situation, I suggested that he would probably be fine, and maybe when they were finished serving him for dinner, they could return him to what was left of the stump. They hardly heard me, because they were already gathering more "plates". 

Within a few minutes, these two boys had a bustling business going, serving cheeses of all varieties on plates to customers who paid with fern leaflets (or rocks, for extra-rare specialty cheeses). The child who was most concerned for the safety of the millipede began "harvesting Swiss cheese" from the pile of powder at the base of the stump. The millipede was forgotten and likely eventually made its way back to the stump, which had become the wall of the Cheese Restaurant, for the full half hour or so that it was in business, before other endeavours took priority for the restaurateurs. 

Did these kids destroy a bit of nature? Yes, they did, but they naturally turned their play into something less destructive when they realized there was a living thing in that bit of nature, and they did it without my direction. They went home feeling proud of their restaurant, happy about their play and discoveries, and, most importantly, more deeply connected to the ecology of their home. That connection is a kind of magic that will stay in their hearts forever, that will lead them to think more carefully about the effects of their actions, and that will lead them to feel more independent and secure in all that they pursue.

In giving kids freedom to explore, we give them space to learn. They learn how to be safe as they explore their own limits. They learn how to handle their bodies in space when they're allowed to play in the creeks and the trees and get stuck in the mud. They learn how to manage their social interactions when they have unhindered space for free play and conversation. And when they are charged with the responsibility of keeping the forest safe, too, they learn to see, understand, and value their ecosystem, as well as their involvement in it.

Is it dangerous? Absolutely. It's risky play. And as we know, risky play is essential for learning to be safe. It's dangerous for the ecosystem, too. That chunk of stump pulled apart will indeed cause some creatures to die, or at the very least to be displaced. And more damaging will be the impact of the continued use of particular locations in the wilderness, where our footsteps and clambering over logs and tree-climbing will, over time, leave noticeable bareness and changes in our path. This is a chance for teachers and parents to point out these changes; to notice our own human impact and compare it to, say, the impact of deer. 

Deer rip stumps apart, too--especially when they're rutting. They even rip the bark off living trees. So why don't we see large areas of the forest just rubbed smooth by this activity, the tree trunks bare, the moss dead, and the ground turned to mud, as it does under the feet of children after ten days playing in the same location? Because deer keep moving. They step lightly. They graze only the tips of leaves in many places instead of devouring whole plants or communities of plants, not only because it's healthier for them to eat a variety of foods, but because that means the plants will keep growing, to be eaten again, later. They interact with their ecosystem in a way that is sustainable, because it's their home, and they need to survive. It's our ecosystem, too, and we need to practice interacting with it, so that we can learn to act sustainably. Giving children freedom and responsibility to engage on their own terms with their environment ensures that they will get the practice they need to become responsible, thoughtful stewards of their home.


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