After years of drought, the rains returned. The creek, which had remained dry for five years, began to flow. The children, many of them having never seen the water moving through the waterway, were elated and longed to play in it with their whole bodies. An old sycamore grows along the creek bed, dropping bits of bark so that they pile beneath its limbs. My eyes, accustomed to seeing the world as possible playthings, saw the boats waiting to be born from this bark in the hands of small children, for whom the world is filled with possibilities. I set to work in the boatyard, in the center of the children’s play, drilling small holes in the bark to set masts and sails. The children, ever curious at the work of the adult world, drew near, waiting to see what my hands would create. Once drilled, the children set off to find twigs just the right size to set inside the readied holes. The mast being placed, a leaf, also just right, had to be found for a sail. Then the boats were ready to launch.
For two hours the creek was filled with small children chasing bark boats carried along on a gentle current. The boats became stuck behind rocks or in small eddies at times, and then all manner of problem-solving ensued. Some waded in to rescue their boats. Others found sticks of proper length (no small feat) to dislodge their boats. Still others recruited friends to set their boats free once again. The creek was filled with the mood of a joyful peace. The children’s play, entirely self-directed was filled with unwavering purpose and focus.
We are often asked if the children “just” play all day. The answer is no. And yes. Play is how the child meets the world and makes sense of it. For two hours, these children studied the water flowing through the creek. They tracked the places where it flowed more rapidly and more slowly. They marked the places where debris might become stuck on its journey downstream. Their boats made these patterns more easily visible.
The day will come, later in their education, when they will likely study the movement and properties of water. Having played with it over and over, these concepts will literally make sense. Their knowledge will be born of their direct sensory experience and that knowledge will be so deeply embodied that they may never know how it is that they know. Through play, we connect, and through our senses, experience the world we live in. Relationships, built on the foundations of self-directed inquiry, direct experiences, observation over time, and joy are built through the genius of play.
Through the bark we found, given as a gift by a tree, and the twigs and leaves dropped from its limbs, we found joy. By gift of the long absent rain, and its journey over the land, we discovered movement and flow. Through our play with these elements, we did what children have inherently done throughout human history: we connected with Nature’s gifts and took our rightful place within them.
~ Lia Grippo / April 2017, Santa Barbara, California
Academy of Forest Kindergarten Teachers, Cofounder
Wild Roots Forest School, Director