Who says kids don’t play in creeks and build dens any more?

Of course some still do. Take the group of boys from Raleigh, North Carolina captured in this slide show.

I love the rough-hewn quality of this photoset. We are being given fleeting glimpses into the children’s private realm. We see real adventure – and real danger – alongside depictions of great creativity and camaraderie.

The photos were taken by the mother of one of the boys, Tina Govan, who is a local architect.  Tina heard me speak a few years ago at the annual Growing in Place conference organised by Robin Moore and colleagues at the Natural Learning Initiative. She emailed me the link out of the blue last week, generously saying that my talk had made a strong impression on her. She adds that a version of video may be shown at this year’s conference.

Tina says: “most parents in my neighborhood are very fearful and their children are tethered to their computers and video games. My older son, though, was fortunate and was able to able to connect to a group of boys whose parents were less controlling and less worried about ‘what’s out there’.”

Here in London, I sometimes see evidence of children and young people’s everyday outdoor adventures when I go for walks or cycle rides in the woods near my home. Just before Christmas I came across this den.

Den in Epping Forest

It too is a refuge, a place of escape and maybe of transgression.  The writers Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, in their book Edgelands, note that “part of the unspoken contract of dens includes elements of danger, as if the nest-like space is all the more cosy and secure for having some darkness or threat it needs to keep out.”

I have no doubt that such experiences are in decline. But Tina’s slideshow reminds us that what playwork theorist Bob Hughes calls “wild, adult-free play” still happens. In the right places – urban woodlands, canals, derelict factory grounds, beaches near coastal towns – you can see the tell-tale signs.

These sorts of experiences are resonant to many of us, and I am sure these photos evoke strong memories. However, what I would really love to hear is more evidence that children today are making the same kinds of memories for themselves. What ‘play traces’ from childhood today can you share with me?

7 responses to “Who says kids don’t play in creeks and build dens any more?

  1. Pingback: Remember play? « Sunflower Creative Arts

  2. Juliet Robertson

    Strangely perhaps I did a lot of supply work in a risk averse school a couple of years ago. For example children were not allowed to dig in soil cos of the risk of soil getting under their fingernails, etc. There was a pond surrounded by a 2.5m high fence with little holes you could peek through to see the pond. No-one was allowed there without loads of permissions, and other red tape to get around.

    However in the grounds was a stream and patch of woodland. And every day those “good” kids would go down and play and play. We had to supervise and there were strict rules such as only crossing the stream by the bridge which staff and children simply ignored because everyone was always sensible even during fast exciting play.

    To me it just highlighted that good kids need good play opportunities. The two go hand in hand.

  3. Hi, I live on the edge of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and there is a stream close to where I live. I frequently see children & youths playing in and around the stream – sometimes obviously on an adventure, exploring, challenging themselves, using those ‘building crash pads’ as rafts (well I can’t blame them – it looks fun!) and the camaraderie is great to see. There are a few groups of young people who use the woodland space to camp and drink in – I cannot condem them for doing this as I did similar at their age (over 20 years ago now). I usually try to engage with them, ask them politely to clear up their litter and not leave it to potentially cause harm to wildlife.
    In my area, I strongly feel that there are few places for Teens to go, be free, explore, play and discover themselves. There are so many places for pre-schoolers and pre-teens, then suddenly nothing unless they want to join scouts, a football club, a youth club or similar. I have nothing against these, but they all have the adult supervision in common.
    Where is the freedom to be, to discover who you are, to learn through your own mistakes, with friends?

    • Thanks for your comment Philippa. It’s so valuable for us grown-ups to be reminded that we too got up to some pretty dodgy, edgy things when we were young. That doesn’t give today’s kids carte blanche of course – but these memories really should make us stop and think before lambasting ‘the youth of today’.

  4. I grew up in Philadelphia which is a huge urban area, but was very luck to have a large wild park nearby, from a very young age we (unmattended by adults) hiked for miles, iceskated and sledded in the winter, built dens and just had experiences that are denied to most children today, which is very sad.

  5. Pingback: Remember play? | Sunflower Creative Arts

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