Listen to the Recess! Clip
Creating Play Spaces in the Woods Transcript
Near my house is a woods that is rapidly becoming housing, but before they bulldoze the area, I went to visit a huge tree fort that was built a number of years ago high in an old oak tree. The young men worked for days designing the fort, gathering the lumber, and climbing higher and higher in the branches of the old tree to establish their special spot in this outdoor world. The boys got caught, I think, and that curtailed their construction, but younger children to this day visit the fort and remake it into their own special play space. What compelled these young men to venture out into the woods to build a tree fort?
Children over the ages have always sought out play spaces of their own invention. As a child I remember spending hours, lost in play with honeysuckle vines in the remains of a cement root cellar in the vacant lot next to my home.
When my children were young we often spent the better part of a Saturday hiking on a dirt trail deep into the woods where children before us (probably with the help of their parents) had created a rope swing over a sinkhole. The kids took turns on the rope swing while our dog drank water and we all enjoyed a picnic lunch before our hike back home.
My daughter was perhaps the ultimate environment builder. During summers in upstate New York, she created multiple play spaces in the woods on the hill in front of our house. Each niche had a special name and imaginary inhabitants. Many were characters from the fantasy books that she read so avidly. For his part, my son discovered a fallen giant oak tree around which he staged endless dramas, usually for his own entertainment, but sometimes inviting a friend to join him.
Their Dad built the kids an elegant climbing area in our back yard, and though they used it some, it never held the emotional value or the imaginative power of their own created spaces in the woods. Looking back, I’m aware that these encounters with special places in my own and my children’s lives, like those in other fictional spaces, such as “Terebithia” in Katherine Paterson’s novel, have been soothing, often adventure-filled, always comforting zones for contemplation. Children today need the same opportunities to generate private play spaces where adults venture only upon invitation. And we adults need to be sure that the woods survive so that our children and our children’s children will always have natural places to discover and transform.