"Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees."
We celebrated my son's 8th birthday last week. He had invited a few close friends and their siblings to bring their bicycles and play outside.
The invitation read: "Please bring your bicycle and helmet and dress appropriately. Unless the weather is terrible, we’ll be outside the whole time. (Lunch in the porch). We’ll serve a light lunch of tortilla pizzas, salad, and fruit, with cake and ice cream for dessert, of course!"
Lucky for us, the weather was beautiful- sunny and about 70 degrees just two days into April. Even last year, however, when there was a light drizzle, the kids played outside for short periods of time. Later, they came inside for an extended Legos session when they got too cold.
I know many parents worry about having no plan for their children's parties- no games or activities organized by the adults. What will they do with all of those kids? The funny thing is, when given the opportunity, kids will make their own fun. And that's exactly what happened here last Friday. They rode their bikes up and down our dirt driveway, making sure to go straight through the mudpuddles left by the previous days' flooding. They invented games with one girl as the mother, and two other kids as her children. They collected random sticks, containers, dog leashes, and cardboard boxes to construct an elaborate scenario I don't pretend to comprehend. They played for hours, only coming inside to use the facilites or wash up before eating. When the planned end-time for the party arrrived, I invited the moms present to let their children play longer if they wanted. Everyone was having so much fun.
While rereading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, I was thinking about the party. Louv writes about the value of extended, uninterrupted outside play and exploration. As part of his argument for more free play in nature, he shares the loose-parts theory proposed by Simon Nicholson. Nicholson describes his theory like this: "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it." (Nicholson quoted in Louv, 2005) Nicholson further explains a "loose-parts" toy as open-ended, meaning that "children may use it in many ways and combine it with other loose parts through imagination and creativity." (Louv, 2005)
There are many reasons a family might choose to have a birthday party in a public facility such as an arcade, bowling alley, or indoor playground: no yard, too much mess post party, not enough time to plan/organize the party, too many kids to fit in the house, or the birthday falls during the winter months (or monsoon, or tornado season...) These are certainly all obstacles to planning such a party. I'd suggest, however, that many of those obstacles can be overcome with a little creative thinking. I'd further suggest that the whole process will be far more enjoyable for you and your child.
I know my family is lucky to live in the country and have a yard and porch. Many of you reading this may not have such resources. I haven't forgotten you. My years of experience both in an elementary classroom and as an educational consultant prepared me to consider all different kinds of familes in all different kinds of situations with very different kinds of needs. My educational background also provided me with tools to imagine different ways of doing things.
Over the next few weeks, I'll share my suggestions for planning a more open-ended birthday party or playdate. If you have specific questions, please comment and I'll try to address them in a future post. And, if you have suggestions, please share them, as well.
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about why nature experiences are so important to childrens' development, I highly recommend reading Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv. You can also visit, The Children and Nature Network.
For practical examples of what to do with kids in nature, try these books:
- Sharing Nature With Children by Joseph Cornell (The first nature resource I used as a Naturalist at Cape Outdoor Discovery.)
- The Green Hour by Todd Christopher
- Nature's Playground by Fiona Danks and Jo Schofield (for my readers in the UK... there's both a UK version and a US version).
- The Sense of Wonder by Rachel Carson (for inspiration)