Off The Shelf: Wild Play

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Wild Play: Parenting Adventures in the Great Outdoors by David Sobel, Sierra Club Books, 2011

It’s not a book of studies and statistics, although you’ll find his arguments well-researched. It’s not a list of outdoor activities, although you’ll walk away planning your next adventure with your kids. This book is foremost a touching memoir of a parent’s gift of nature to his two children.

I came to know this author through his publications (Place-Based Education and Mapmaking with Children) in environmental education. While those books thrilled me as an educator, this book speaks to my heart as a parent.

In Wild Play, David Sobel describes how he consciously created opportunities to surround his children with the natural world and to forge relationships with them through their shared experiences in nature. He led and participated in many of the adventures but also allowed his children to create their own meaning and form their own relationships with nature, so as much as this book is the story of his children through the years, it is also a book about how a parent – and parenting – changes as one’s children grow older.

Wild Play is divided into three sections corresponding to developmental stages: early childhood, middle childhood, and adolescence. Each section is made up of a prelude describing developmental issues of the stage and four or five supporting chapters which examine a theme or, more specifically, a particular family experience in nature.

The author uses nature itself as a metaphor to describe the three stages. Early childhood, which covers ages 2 to 6, is a meadow; middle childhood, ages 7-12, is a forest; and, adolescence, ages 13 to young adulthood, is a rocky ridge.

According to Mr. Sobel, “Early childhood, starting around age two, is a time for fostering empathy, for encouraging children’s sense of connectedness with the animals, trees, rocks, soil, and water of the nearby world – for exploring the meadow.” In this section, he focuses on extending nature play with storytelling, thereby creating a magical space in which the child can experience the natural world internally in their imaginary world.

In the prelude to the second section, Mr. Sobel writes: “If early childhood was about discovering empathy, middle childhood is about exploration. It’s a time for children to move beyond the family to bond with the earth. They should be off on their own, finding their own paths in the forest.” This section discusses how to balance the risk of adventurous play – from exploring bear dens to building fires – with the benefits.

The “rocky ridge” metaphor of adolescence describes both the “rocky” relationship between parent and child during this time and the adolescent need to test and/or prove oneself through risky behavior. “In adolescence, the developmental task is to bond with the self, and the natural world can provide the setting and opportunity for challenging rites of passage.” The chapters in this section describe adventures he experienced alongside his children instead of as leader of the expedition, honoring their maturity, abilities, and wisdom.

I imagine I’ll pull Wild Play off my shelf again and again throughout the years as my boys move through the developmental stages of childhood. In fact, it’s something I look forward to. I highly recommend Wild Play for parents who are interested in seeing how another family integrated nature into the fabric of family life. You can borrow my copy, but I’m going to need it back.


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