COLUMN — Usually, the children like going to town.
It is a change of pace, a chance to get cleaned up, put on town shoes and get the things we’ve been needing all week. But this time all the children could think about was getting back home to The Hole.
When we got home, I pulled into the driveway, the children avalanched out of the van, and were gone. I wondered where they were and saw them at The Hole, completely absorbed in their play.
The Hole was about five feet deep, deeper than they were tall, and the sandy sides would sift in if they were disturbed. They spent the afternoon digging it in Dan’s wheat plot, where he said they could dig because the ground would be disturbed anyway. But, he warned, it would have to be filled in when he needed to till and plant.
“OK!” they said in unison, and were absent for the afternoon.
I worried about them digging such a big hole in our sandy river valley soil. What if it collapsed? What if they couldn’t get out?
And to me, it seemed such a silly place to play, and I had no idea what the allure was. Then again, I had read a lot of early childhood experts years ago and there was one thing that always stood out in my mind: try not to disturb a child’s activity when they are very absorbed. It may seem unproductive to you, but it isn’t to them. They are learning, and are drawn to lessons and experiences they must do at that time of their development.
I remember the story of a young boy who spent hours wiping a table. He was compelled to do it. To the adult, it was an aimless activity, or even some sort of stim (stimulation or repetitive motions autistic children sometimes engage in). To him, he was learning mastery of that motion, attention to detail, and likely slipping into the zone where problem solving happens.
I watched my children’s play for a moment. The more I watched, the more impressed I became of what I saw. Science, math, physics, social dynamics were being experienced, all at the same time.
They knew exactly how deep to dig that hole before it became a danger, and how it needed to be shaped. It funnelled wide at the top and was narrower at the bottom to account for the small amount of erosion that occurs each time it’s disturbed, and so chunks of dirt wouldn’t fall on anyone inside. They made it that way, albeit subconsciously. They’d leap over The Hole, into it, and mastered climbing out with precision. They had all dug it together, and when it was completed, engaged in imaginative play and conflict scenarios around it.
I marvelled when I realized all what could be learned from The Hole. The children were all different ages and they all shared common experience, yet each got something different out of it.
The moment brought me back to the time when my family lived on an acreage west of Calgary in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Our four acres were mostly treed, save for the one or two acres flooded by beavers each year. When a friend would come over, we’d dash into the trees with our plastic bows and arrows, the kind you’d probably find at a dollar store now. I could see our house through the trees, but somehow I was transported into a faraway enchanted place where I had to find my own way and fend for myself.
I never forgot that feeling. Focused, but unstructured, lost in another world, play.
Once Son Sparkling dragged loads of scrap wood from the wood pile and built a network of balance beams designed to be an obstacle course. He then proceeded to try it out, modify it, then try it again. He was learning how to make things level (or not), the steepest angle that could be made before it became an unnavigable incline, the various locations that posts should be placed to support various lengths of beams. His modifications and testing went on for days.
I rarely saw such play when we lived in the city — the deeply involved, continuing for days, unstructured play, with no toys, no planned activity. Certainly, it is possible in an urban environment, in different ways and different forms. But there’s something about being in the country, outside, with a lot of space. No wonder experts are calling for parents to get their children out into nature to just explore and play.
As a homeschooling mom, I spend a lot of time with my children. I’ve had a lot of time to observe how they learn, and what is healthy development. I can say I think academics and arts are highly important. But I consider unstructured play just as important.
Children are inexperienced and don’t always know possibilities, or what options are available. At these times, it’s up to the parent to guide and sometimes play with their children. Sometimes play does need to be directed or redirected. But I’ve found it should be done carefully, unobtrusively. If necessary, facilitate and step back, or let them guide.
More than anything, it’s OK for children to be “bored.” I mean really bored, where there’s no TV, no video games, no lessons, and maybe even no friends to play with. In fact, it’s healthy. Children need to be bored in the outdoors a lot more often than our culture permits.
When Dan had to fill in the hole because it was time to plant the wheat field, they were upset. Sensitive Sparkling cried. But the play and interest had waned and it was the right time. They were ready to move on to something else.
They still talk about The Hole. I will always remember what it taught them. And what it taught me.
Dan and Jody Spark are in their fourth year of living their back-to-the-land dream on their small acreage at McLure and they are having the time of their life.