He was not the only one moved by the loss of the tree. Neighbors of the park, visitors, and other movers also expressed their sadness over the loss of the tree.
It seems strange at first of mourning a tree, but this phenomenon of bonding with and becoming fond of a tree, or multiple trees, is very common, and very human. Trees provide humans food, shelter from the elements, landmarks during travel, and safety from (most) animals. But they also provide us a level of consistency and reliability in our world – that tree doesn’t go anywhere – while also marking the changing of the seasons and change over time. It provides enjoyment whether you are climbing the tree or just resting at its base. Being in or near nature, even a single tree, has profound, positive effects on our physical and mental states.
In Melbourne, Australia, a few years ago people started using the park system’s email alert system to express their fondness for some of their favorite trees.
At my daughter’s outdoor preschool the kids have slowly been naming the trees in the park during their daily hikes – grandfather tree, silly tree, spaceship tree, and others. These names help the kids orient where they are in the park, but they also represent a kinship with the tree, a familiarity and reliability that provides consistency and joy for the kids.
When a tree dies or is cut down, we feel its loss and we mourn. It is only human.
According to blogger Hansi Johnson, it used to mean someone who likes going outdoors. But now, Hansi argues, the outdoors have become elitist to the point of making it seem inaccessible to most.
I’ve observed how the outdoor industry and the media have portrayed getting outside for nearly my entire life, and what used to be a very “volkssport,” inclusive, hippy-like identity has transformed into a super-elitist and entitled one. The destinations presented in the media are generally so unattainable by most people that they might as well be on the moon–and don’t even bother going if you’re not wearing expensive, high-tech apparel and using modern, high-priced gear.
Why does this matter? Because the majority of people in both the developed and developing world already feel like they don’t have time, energy, or resources to “go outside” and get exposure to nature, whether that’s to hike, bike, or just have a picnic. Creating this illusion of exclusivity is bad for everyone. Feeling like you don’t belong – of all places – in NATURE is frankly inhumane. Research has demonstrated over and over how our bodies and brains NEED nature and natural environments.
Get outside, hug a tree, pick a flower, fall into some snow, stomp in puddles.
A wealth of research shows that just being in nature, even a city park, can make us feel better, both psychologically and physically. Such contact with nature can improve mood, reduce pain and anxiety, and even help sick or injured people heal faster. But what effect does it have on groups of people and society at large? New research suggests that nature can actually improve the degree to which people feel connected to and act favorably toward others, specifically their neighbors, says Netta Weinstein, a senior psychology lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales.
Looking at all the things they measured, there could be multiple factors that contributed to this correlation, but no matter what they found that nature played some signficant level of impact, and that is a very valuable finding.
Fall is finally upon us here in the Pacific Northwest. I’m not going to deny it anymore. But even as the weather gets cooler, my family and I are still finding ways to get outside and play.
I have always loved playing outside, climbing on rocks, trees, hiking, and splashing in puddles, and really want to pass this love of nature and outdoor movement on to my kids. It is so great to see other parents encourage their kids, and other grown-ups, to discover and recover their biophilia and love of playing outdoors.
One of the best outdoor play advocates I have met in a long time is Katy Bowman, although for her, moving and exploring the outdoors is simply behaving like a normal human.
Katy is a biomechanist with a deservedly large following of movement practitioners using her Restorative Exercise program. Katy is a huge advocate of natural movement and getting outside as much as possible, and encourages it with her kids as well. Katy talks about their experience in their outdoor “nature” preschool on her blog and podcast, but the enriching environments she has set up for her kids at home is in a class by itself.
Katy graciously invited my family out to her house outside of a small town on the Olympic Peninsula earlier this summer.
When we pull up to her house, the front yard looks fairly typical for any house containing small children; a few toys are strewn around the yard, slightly hidden by the uncut grass. Her husband and children have just headed off down the road for a walk. She helps us unload our brood out of the car after the long drive and immediately invites my daughter to explore, with me in tow.
We step out of the house into the backyard, and it is perfect.
My three-year-old daughter’s eyes light up like she’s hit the motherlode.
The lawn is littered with toys – costumes, stuffed animals, balls, a Little Tyke’s scooter car. There is a big basket of LEGOs sitting on the porch waiting to be dumped over and played with.
There are also complex toys laid out intentionally by Katy and her husband Michael for her kids to play with. A tippy rope ladder strung between two trees with a foam mat underneath; ladders laid on the ground for balancing, a jungle gym, a circle swing, large wooden ramps placed strategically up to table tops. The cherry tree is also filled with cherries, for good measure.
The kids have gotten creative with some of their building materials, including taking a couple of blocks from the flower box and made a corral for their plastic farm animals. They have also left little illustrations stealthily added around inside the house: on the wooden bed frame, the balance ball in Katy’s office, and on a couple of door frames.
And that’s before we even meet the chickens or go down to the Dungeness River to throw rocks, wade, climb, and make structures in the sand.
It is obvious the kids have the run of the house, and its affect is wonderful.
Katy has created a practice based on her high level training in biomechanics and years of teaching experience centered on creating a healthy, mobile human being, and this practice is reflected in how she and Michael have set up their home environment. Every space is open for movement, jump, climb, and play. There are edges and imperfectly balanced steps and slight risks everywhere. The kids must learn to navigate their environment safely, and have a blast doing it.
Katy often talks about getting her kids outside and exposed to new, playful challenges. And yet, when I ask her about it, she almost baulks at the idea she is supporting a primarily “playful” environment. For her, this is simply survival, teaching her little humans how to be human. She is merely creating and supporting healthy behaviors, what kids and grownups should be doing all the time.
They let their children go slow, at their pace. Their kids learn by doing, by experiencing. As do we all, really. It’s true that, thanks to the visit, I now have more confidence in being able to ford a fast-moving stream carrying my toddler. And it wasn’t part of a survival training camp or an emergency. It was part of our Sunday family outing. It may sound small or frivolous or “not necessary,” but for the survival of our species, that skill is a big deal.
To me, this kind of activity is not just good for restoring our body and capability to move, it is also restorative to our psyches and filling that need to explore and play at our own pace and learn in a playful way.
Finally my family has to head home. We take the time to let our kids say good night to the chickens before we load back into our car, driving away with the sunset on our backs. After getting to see and play in Katy’s backyard, both the grown-ups and the kids in our family feel renewed, replenished, and ready to play and explore our own backyard and our home environment in a new way.
I highly recommend digging in to Katy’s materials. She has some great ideas and thoughts around leading a healthy, restorative, and in my mind playful movement practice, whether it’s in nature or just in your own backyard.
When I first read this article I was shocked that they would send teenagers out to do this job. And then I realized what a great opportunity and program this was actually an amazing opportunity.
The teenagers get outside into nature, which has been shown to have a ridiculous amount of benefits around concentration, calming and serenity. It gets them exercising, which also has amazing physical and psychological benefits. They learn skills they can use as grown-ups, they learn to work as a team, they learn to take orders, and they are giving back to other people in need, like someone who’s house is in danger of being burned down.
This is not exactly play, but it is an applied real-world education, and while some commenters have been upset by the small amount of money they make, frankly I don’t think that matters, especially if we think of this program as an addition to the regular traditional education that they’d be receiving in public school or in correctional facilities. In fact I suspect if you offered this program to public high schools it would fill up in a matter of days.
There are also programs like this in California. With the scary fires and kid escaping this past month Washington is reevaluating whether to keep it going. I hope they continue this program and encourage similar programs for kids “in the system.”
It is in our nature to pick up interesting rocks, sticks, and leaves as part of our exploration of our surroundings. Some people bring their treasures home and display them on a fireplace mantle or little shadow box.
For a husband and wife team, they have been turning their little finds into fairy houses, which is another playful way of exploring their surroundings and getting to engage in make believe play as a grown up. They are also one of the lucky few people who get to sell their play creations. They were interviewed on the Etsy blog about their creations:
Etsy: When did you make your first fairy house? And had you ever heard of one before you made one?
Debbie: I grew up writing poetry and playing musical instruments and I had always loved doing different kinds of crafts like making dolls, handmade books and cards. But no, we’d never really heard of fairy houses before we started doing this 25 years ago. At the time, our sons had just started going to grade school, and when I found I had more time to myself, I was excited to use my creative talents again. The first project I tried was making a full-size Adirondack chair; when that didn’t work out, Mike suggested that I try making a miniature chair instead. I used some materials I had gathered from a couple of acres near my mom and dad’s place in Washington, and it was so much fun I kept doing it.
Mike: We have always loved nature. When we would go for hikes, Debbie was always picking up things she found, so we already had quite a collection of wild grasses and flowers. And Debbie’s mom was our biggest mentor. She always said, “You have so much talent. I wish you would use your talent.” She really encouraged us.
How wonderful that Debbie’s mom continued to encourage to play and explore with creating these miniatures.
Have you ever built little fairy houses when you go for a walk? Or seen someone else’s creation? Do you build with LEGOs or other miniatures? Or K’nex (Connector) Sets or Lincoln Logs or other building set? Do you wish you still did? Share in the comments below.
Kids are amazing explorers. Their drive for exploration and play can overpower their desires for sleep, food, and general grumpiness.
This past Monday we had a sitter sick day, and I was in charge of the kids. To get them out of the house we took a four hour round-trip hike down to the park near our house. This park is more like a nature preserve, with a trail that follows a quick drop down from street level into a canyon where a small creek that still supports a salmon run every year slowly meanders down to a mostly sandy beach and the Puget Sound, where local families dig their plastic shovels in the gravely soil and watch sail boats, freight ships, and the occasional harbor seal, bald eagle, or osprey fishing off the shore.
My daughter loved walking over the wooden bridges, stomping her feet to make the boom boom echo noise that only comes from wooden bridges. We went at her pace, taking as much time as she wanted at each spot, stopping at every bridge to look over its edge into the babbling brook or stream below, stopping to touch a cool tree, as well as the fire trucks that happened to be at the park. A few times I got bored and suggested we move on, and if she said yes we went and if not we stayed. Even towards the end of our adventures, although she was simultaneously starting to complain about being hungry and thirsty, she was the one demanding that we go down to the beach to at least sit on a log for awhile and touch the sand. She also wanted to go swimming in the creek and the sound, but we skipped those activities mostly because I did not feel like adding “wet” to the description of things I had to lug back out of the canyon, and she didn’t protest too much.
She balanced, climbed, slid, see-sawed, and ran up and down hills, falling and tripping a couple of times but brushing herself off each time and only needing one kiss to make a finger better before moving on to the next activity. She got to try an apple that fell off the park’s apple orchard, picked up leaves, and analyzed different rocks strewn on the beach. She walked more than half of the time down and around the canyon and park, and returning walked all the way down the hill from the beach cliff and towards the lower parking lot. She had an amazing time and had lots of things to share with her dad when we got back from our adventure.
But my son, my son enjoyed the day on an entirely different level. My son was so happy during our walk through the woods he looked like an animal released from its cage and realizing it has been returned into its home forest.
He would just lean over, reaching down over the edge of his stroller trying to touch the ground as it whizzed by him, feeling any dirt kick up off the path with those pudgy little hands that an instant later were reaching up up up into the sky, trying to touch the leaves high above and sunlight sparkling through them.
He was always sitting literally at the edge of his seat, at times riding his stroller like a chariot, bracing his feet against the step and grabbing the guard rail, standing straight up and wiggling his body to urge his rickety chariot to go faster. He would lean back into his chair, arching his back to look up at the tops of the trees, and look back at me as if to say “Mom, this is so cool!”
He wanted to taste and experience everything, and although he tired much more quickly than his sister he still grabbed for various sticks, rocks, and chunks of wood to taste as we sat on the beach. He would understand when I told him no and take the rock out of his mouth, but would then start searching for another one, thinking, “maybe this cracker shaped piece of wood is okay.” When he found an apple on the ground in the orchard, He was so proud and protective of it he struggled with wanting to show me but wanting to keep it for himself. He actually tried to pick up all the apples while holding on to his tiny little apple, but I tossed the rotten ones further into the field and tried to get him to focus on his precious little apple that he had already started chewing. He spent a long time nibbling at it, getting it about half eaten, and when I finally snuck it away from him to bite away a wormy spot I found that in fact it was pretty good, better than the one I picked off the tree for my daughter.
He had exhausted himself by the time we walked through the woods again and looked dazedly up into the sparking tree canopy before he drifted to sleep about half way up the canyon trail. My daughter rested in her seat, chatting here and there but was overall surprisingly quiet for a two year old.
After I made us a very late lunch and we sat around the kitchen table hungrily munching our pasta and sausages, I was still, and am still, blown away by just how long the kids both wanted to be out there in the park, playing, exploring, and just how happy they were to be out experiencing nature. I try to let the kids explore on their own at their own pace, but this day took that experience to a whole new level for me, one I will try to remember as we continue to explore and learn about our world together.
This is a great blog post from a teacher re-learning the value of creative free play and specifically outside.
I highly recommend you read the whole post, but for me this sentence summed up the whole experience:
“…As I witnessed these projects I realised that children and adults can only be as creative as their environment allows them to be and that by letting children spend time in a natural environment like the woods or to be surrounded by loose parts, we can but only help them to become or remain creative.”
Okay, ignore that this is a granola company’s commercial.
And they may have cherry-picked to prove a point.
The fact that even these kids exist is terrifying.
Just watch the video. And cringe. Mourn. Cry. Then go do something about it!
Children are obsessed with technology, and Nature Valley wants us to be afraid. Very afraid.
That seems to be the message of this new ad for the granola bar company, which asks three generations of families: “When you were a kid, what did you do for fun?”
The elder two generations share memories of blueberry picking, sledding, fishing trips, and playing baseball as airy music plays in the background.
But then it’s the younger generation’s turn, and ominous music suggests these kids aren’t exactly frolicking in the grass and soaking in the sunshine. The kids detail that they spend five hours a day texting, emailing, tweeting, browsing the computer, or playing video games as the parents cry or lament the death of the good old days.
And now, the residents of Melbourne have found a way to express it.
The city of Melbourne assigned trees email addresses so citizens could report problems. Instead, people wrote thousands of love letters to their favorite trees.
“My dearest Ulmus,” the message began.
“As I was leaving St. Mary’s College today I was struck, not by a branch, but by your radiant beauty. You must get these messages all the time. You’re such an attractive tree.”
This is an excerpt of a letter someone wrote to a green-leaf elm, one of thousands of messages in an ongoing correspondence between the people of Melbourne, Australia, and the city’s trees.
Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees, which have received thousands of messages—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas.
“The email interactions reveal the love Melburnians have for our trees,” Wood said. City officials shared several of the tree emails with me, but redacted the names of senders to respect their privacy.