I have found in my many years of teaching young children, and in my years as a mother of young boys, that most children are happiest at play outdoors. Young children are close to the realm of nature because they are still very natural beings. Because their consciousness is not yet separated from the environment — because they still live in the consciousness of oneness, of unity — they belong still to the natural world. In time they will belong to themselves, as the process of individuation becomes complete. But for about the first seven years, they are still at one with the world they inhabit. The process of separating from the parents and from the environment buds only around age seven. Before that, the child is moved along by life, something like the way a tree’s leaves dance in the breeze. The young child responds to the environment in a very unselfconscious way, a very natural way, and the open, complex, and diverse environment of the outdoors gives him that opportunity. If, in his excitement at a butterfly, he needs to dance and pirouette dizzyingly around the garden, no one has to say, “Be careful of the table.” If he needs to shout for glee or weep for sorrow, he is free.
Make a Playhouse
A wonderfully whimsical “playhouse” that is open-ended and lends itself to the child’s imagination is a simple branch structure. You can build it in a few hours one afternoon. If your yard doesn’t offer large branches that come down in the wind, check with your town’s recycling department. Sometimes cities collect fallen branches to process into mulch. Or, if you are lucky enough to live close to a bamboo grove, fresh-cut bamboo makes perfect outdoor play structures (some garden shops also sell bamboo lengths). You can shape the structures like a tipi and lash the poles together at the top, making sure to sink the ends into the ground. You can also make a small, igloo-shaped structure, again sinking the ends and lashing at the top. You may want to make a rectangular structure, even topping it with “roof rafters.” These structures can be enclosed with an old queen- or king-size sheet from a secondhand store. Hold the sheet in place with clothespins and take it down to launder when necessary. The beauty of these open branch structures is that day by day your children will want to go to the stick pile to continue the construction in their own fanciful way. Or they will go to gather seashells to decorate the perimeter, or collect pine needles to make a soft carpet.
Sometimes, especially with a first child, we need to give small hints, a little jog of their imagination. So you may want to say something like, “When I was a little girl, we used to put pine needles on the floor as a carpet.” Or, “I wonder what it would be like to put seashells around the outside, as decoration.” Usually a few small suggestions tossed lightly in your child’s direction will spark a whole flood of imagination. We can couch these ideas in the framework of “When I was little…” or “I wonder…”, and they are usually happily accepted, or met with, “No, I think I’ll do it like this instead.”
Other delightful “play structures” have a shorter lifespan. When you are inquiring about good sticks for the back yard, ask about some large, stable tree stumps. Occasionally a very old tree will come down in a windstorm, and you can explore the possibility of hauling home a load of stumps of various sizes. These can be placed as a balance structure, with your child hopping from one stump to the next. Your child may also discover them, if they are the right size, to be a good “steamroller,” or castle-building material. You can also place a large, flat stump about two and a half feet high in a central place, and put several shorter, smaller ones around it, to create a magical table and chairs.
Another type of playhouse or fort can be constructed of straw bales. I had a wonderfully educational experience with straw bale houses! I brought about ten straw bales to the school playground and stacked them in a semicircle, making to my eyes a perfect place for a play kitchen or restaurant to evolve. I placed the bales close to the sandbox, and each day would put bowls and spoons, pots and pans on the child-sized table, as an invitation to play. The children rejected my beautiful creation so completely, it was as though it was invisible! After several months, I realized it was obviously not the great idea I had imagined, so I wheelbarrowed the hay bales across the creek to the garden and dumped them unceremoniously onto the grass clipping and weed pile. The next day, the children saw the bales tossed helter-skelter in a heap and whooped for joy! They ran laughing and tumbling into the soft, sweet-smelling jumble and began to push and pull, arranging the bales into their very own creation, which was full of odd angles, crevices, and wobbly places. Day after day they returned with boards, sticks, ropes and whatnot, making trampolines, nests, balance beams, and even (as I had first imagined) a restaurant. I learned all over again to offer the right materials, with a light hand. It was my adult ideas about form that had stymied the children’s creativity. When I tossed the bales aside, they became free enough for the children to make them their own. So if you create a lovely structure and your child rejects it, look carefully to see if you are too attached to it, and if there is a way you can loosen the form to set it free.
Note: If you choose to make a straw-bale house, when the bales have weathered and softened in the fall you can put them as heavy mulch in the garden, to decompose over the winter months. If you intend the garden to be their final destination, be sure they are straw, not hay, which contains seeds. If each year you bring several bales of straw home for the summer, and they eventually go into the garden, you will have not only a happy child but a well-mulched garden as well.
Play in the Garden
A remarkable addition to an outdoor playspace is a garden. Care of plant life is a fundamental lesson in outdoor play. In caring for a small garden patch, in learning to weed and water, and in delighting in the produce—whether flowers, vegetables or both—the child learns a very basic lesson in the relationship between humanity and the natural world. Whether it is a container garden on your urban patio, a half-acre of vegetables, or something in between, the close proximity of a garden deepens and diversifies your child’s experience.
A marvelous way to “open” the gardening season each year is to go through the outgrown clothes with your child and choose clothes for a child-sized scarecrow. He can be stuffed with grass clippings, bark mulch, or hay, and you can make a head out of an old T-shirt, stuffed and tied at the bottom like a balloon. You can then stitch the head onto the neckline of the shirt, choose an old hat, and there he is! I have placed a small scarecrow in a child’s lawn chair and put shoes on the ground under his legs. Your child will love to run and whisper to him, especially if you animate him, if you wonder what secrets he has to tell. In the summer you can place the watering can by his feet, and keep a rake beside him in the fall. As the weather gets cold, he may need a stocking cap! One way to close the garden at the end of the season is to tell your child, “He has worked hard in our garden all year. Let’s let him go to bed for the winter!” You can then shake his stuffing into the compost, and put his clothes in the rag pile.
Your children will love to participate in the daily tending, watering, fertilizing and weeding, especially if you bring a sense of joy to the work. But they will love most of all gathering the harvest, whether to bring to the table or to just pop into their mouths on the way to the fort. You may want to let your bean tipi become the children’s “fort.” Just be sure to make it big enough that small feet don’t have to trample the vines. A few shovelsful of bark mulch will help define the floor of the tipi and help protect the vines. You might like to make a bean tipi especially for play: scarlet runner beans are ornamental, with a gorgeous flower. This could become the children’s tipi, and leave the harvestable beans safe from little feet. In a small child’s mind, as well as inside the bean tipi, and on the playground, work and play are woven together into the fabric of life.
Sharifa Oppenheimer is the author of the best-selling book Heaven on Earth: A Handbook for Parents of Young Children. She also worked collaboratively to create What is a Waldorf Kindergarten, in which she introduces each subject and author. She was the founding teacher of the Charlottesville Waldorf School, Virginia, where she taught kindergarten for twenty-one years and served as day care director of the early-childhood program. She has helped develop new teachers through mentoring and offering practicum and internship opportunities to the teacher-training students at Sunbridge College in New York. Recently she initiated a home-based kindergarten program, The Rose Garden. Sharifa also travels offering lectures and workshops to school and parent groups, encouraging each one to discover their own healthy, heartfelt Family Culture. Sharifa is the mother of three grown sons, who were educated in the Waldorf tradition. She lives in an enchanted forest in Virginia.