Friday, December 12, 2014

Nature Play Group

Another homeschool park day with the Nature Play group, this time at Bill Frederick Park at Turkey Lake in Orlando!  This park was awesome, and it's right near Universal so on the drive home, we could see Hogwarts from the road!  So cool.

Back to the park day - the kids had a great time.  We started off at the children's farm and checked out the horses, goats, pigs, chickens, turkeys, bunnies, and a few free-roaming cats.  It was a nice turn-out, but again, there weren't any kids Colwyn and Lachlann's ages, so they were a little disappointed.  After checking out the animals, we wandered down some trails until we found a good spot to sit and let the kids play.  It was a fairly cool day (about 70, maybe - warm in the sun, cool in the shade) and the area we picked had a nice slope, lots of trees and places to dig.

Colwyn and Lachlann spent a good portion of their time hanging out at a gazebo nearby, away from the younger kids.  Fiona and Niall got involved in the digging up of many rocks, but Fiona kept having shy moments.  The weird - and annoying - thing was, many of the parents would say to me, when she was acting clingy, "Don't worry, it takes a while for kids to learn how to play in the woods."  I kept responding, "No, they know how to play in the woods, they're used to that - they're just shy in new groups."  But I kept getting that comment.  It was driving me nuts.  Later, when Fiona and Niall were using sticks to dig in the dirt, another mom said, "Look, they figured out how to dig with sticks!"  I couldn't figure out what the deal is with these moms.  Do Florida kids really not know how to engage in free play?  It would never occur to me to see some kids playing with sticks, and get all excited that they figured out what to do with sticks.  "Yes, my children are as smart as chimps!"

As the conversations continued, I kept hearing things that I found a little weird and possibly disturbing.  One of the big things that annoys me about this group is that they don't allow kids to bring toys.  They can bring buckets, shovels, ropes, blankets, etc.. but not toys.  Well, my kids love to bring toys to parks.  Fiona usually picks out a plastic animal and occasionally a doll and incorporates it into what she's playing outside - she builds it a house, she has it interact with (far-off) wildlife, whatever.  So when we get to the parking lot, I have to say, "No, Fiona, you have to leave your dinosaur in the car" and it makes her sad.  But, okay, I can deal with that.  But I heard the leader of the group talking to another new member about why she has that rule, and it made me want to follow it even less!  She said that bringing toys prevents the kids from actually interacting with nature, that instead of playing with sticks and rocks and dirt, and being creative and imaginative, they'll only focus on the toys.  Then the kids will start fighting with each other, because they'll all want each other's toys and it will, in her words, "cause an arms race over toys!"  My head almost exploded when I heard her say this.  I've been taking my kids to playgrounds for a long time - almost 11 years - and not once have I seen them get into a fight over toys.  I've never seen them NOT play with their surroundings because they have a toy with them.  Does she really think this?  Is this what kids are like in Florida?  Is it just because these kids are all younger, and these moms are (I hate to say it) less experienced?  I can't figure it out.

Another rule that annoys me is that we can't play at playgrounds.  The parks we've been to have all had great playgrounds nearby, but we're not allowed to go there.  The goal is to play in an unstructured natural environment, not on a playground.  I find it annoying because we inevitably have to drive past the playground to get to where we're going, and I have to tell the kids no, we can't stop.  I mean, whatever, I'm willing to do that because it's just one more out of a hundred things I have to say no to every day, but what's wrong with playgrounds?  I eventually worked up the nerve to ask about it, in a very deferential way.  I said, "So.. do kids around here not know how to play like this?  Like.. when you go to a playground, do they not eventually go off and climb the trees and play in the surrounding landscaping?"  I was told that no, kids do not do that, that most parents down here are afraid to let their kids step off the sidewalk, that they're all helicopter parents.

Okay, I can believe that.  Fire ants, giant spiders, sure.  But I explained that up in Massachusetts, park days happen at big parks where there's a playground, and while the kids might start out playing on the play structure, they very quickly end up building things with branches and sticks, playing hide and seek in the woods, climbing on rocks, etc.  I don't think they disbelieved me, exactly, but they definitely didn't think that would work down here.  But what I thought was really funny was that while they talked about how being a helicopter parent is so bad, they were also trying to direct their kids' play.  The kids were very happily digging up rocks, quite content, when the moms all decided that had to stop and that we should all build a lean-to out of big branches.  Then they started doing it for the kids.  I mean, the kids were definitely involved, but it was not 'unstructured free play' - it was parent-led play.  At another playgroup, I suggested Fiona go build a fairy house - something she came up with all on her own a year or more ago at park days while I was chatting with the other moms and not directing her play, and has loved doing ever since - and all the moms jumped on it, like, "Oh, I know how to build a great fairy house!  Look, do it this way!"

Don't get me wrong, the group is not all bad.  The moms are quite lovely, as are the children.  They know all sorts of great parks to go to, and hey, social opportunities are social opportunities!  I'm not going to give up on it just because it's different from how I'd like.  But it's just kind of weird, and I'm struggling to get a grip on what the local parenting/homeschooling culture is like.  There's a lot I just don't get.

And hey, the kids did have a great time building that lean-to!

Colwyn and Lachlann even found some animal bones in the woods.  I let them spend a fair bit of time examining them by themselves, showing them how to use sticks to gently move the bones so they could see them properly, how to gently move aside the leaf layer to look for more bones, and how to - well, not articulate them - but arrange them in the right order.  Then we called the munchkins over.

While the littles were all examining the bones, I started searching for the skull nearby (thinking of past Bones episodes the whole time!) and found it a couple of yards away.  Again, I let the boys have time checking it out before calling everyone else over - all the little kids were picking up the bones with their hands, saying that they wanted to take them home.  Thankfully the moms said no, that they needed to leave them here for other people to have fun discovering.

And because I can't let things go, I'll mention this.  I was further annoyed with this article that was sent out to the group:  We're Ruining Our Kids With Minecraft

There were a few good points in the article, but I get annoyed with titles like "We're Ruining Our Kids With Minecraft" - it's pandering and sensationalism.  Out of all the various 'screen time' diversions, Minecraft is the least likely to ruin our children.  He makes the point that kids need:  "kind of play that has … no defined script, and no end goal other than inventing worlds and coming up with ideas."  That's exactly what Minecraft is.  Especially when you add in the ability to make mods to the game, too.  And to say that it becomes just 'labor' is missing the point that even if your kids are out in the woods building a fort or digging in the sand, at some point it's just 'labor' too.  To dogmatically eschew any form of entertainment that can't be found in the woods is to miss out on a lot of things that can be beneficial with some balance.

I do like the author's points about parents not structuring children's play.  Already discussed that above.  It's not really unstructured play if parents are telling the kids what to do, you know?

I also agree with the idea that you can't really expect kids to engage in the kind of free play we value if they have unlimited access to electronics.    I know if I let my kids, they'd play video games all day.  But I also don't see any point in placing rules on how they engage in free play, either.  My kids have created some epic imaginary worlds in our backyard, digging canals (which later became rivers with the help of the hose), using branches and leaves to make houses, and populating it with all manner of plastic figures.  All because I was too busy reading my book or chatting with a friend to push them on the swings.

Ah well.  I'm grateful for the opportunity to stretch and grow, to learn to become more flexible and accepting, to lean into discomfort.. in addition to all the actual fun parts of this group!

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