I teach not far from where I grew up: a city neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. When I read curriculum ideas and blogs about outdoor play, natural materials, forest schools, and the like, I always feel a slight disconnect. I love the photos of children gathering branches in the woods and building structures out of them, children sliding down a grassy hillside, children splashing by the side of a lake or pond and making mud pies on the shore. But as much as I value outdoors and natural play, those aren’t my places. I felt this way as a child, reading books about children playing in the woods behind their house, hopping across a stream on the way to school, or sledding on a nearby hill. I tried to imagine these scenes, since I knew what woods, streams, and hills were. But I couldn’t imagine them next to my house.
It’s not that I think that city children don’t have opportunities for nature play, or that I feel the difference in environment is something to feel sorry about. Growing up in the city, my friends and I played, just like children do everywhere, and during the summer, we played outdoors. We gathered grass, sticks, and leaves that we mixed into pretend soup or potions. We hunted for rocks, which were sometimes tiny pieces of crumbled asphalt or concrete, but we treasured these as much as if they had come from a beach or wooded trail. There were no trees to climb, but we played under the branches of the neatly trimmed parkway trees, and spent hours gazing up, imagining what it might be like to climb them if we could. We made hiding spaces behind the bushes that were planted neatly in front of people’s houses, or better still, the ones lining the alley behind the house, where no one would see the private clubhouse we created.
There was no stream to wade across or skip stones in. But we still played with water – water that poured from the faucet in a backyard or from a garden hose, gathered in buckets and stirred with sticks, which then became improvised paintbrushes to make designs on the sidewalk. When it rained we watched the water rushing through the gutters, and improvised dams of sticks and leaves to block the storm drain and make huge puddles to splash in.
Our games, like the games of children everywhere, revolved around the materials we had access to. We invented endless variations of hopping, jumping, and stepping games that involved leaping across sidewalk squares, or chanting rhymes as we stepped up and down the stairs on someone’s front stoop. We measured our space in sidewalk squares, distance between the alleys on each end of the blocks, the patches of grass that separated the buildings from the sidewalk, and the ones that separated the sidewalk from the street. A curb could be a balance beam, and the streetlight home base for hide-and-seek or tag.
When I reflect on my city childhood and the materials I had to play with, I’m struck by how we as teachers can get overly fixated in the materials themselves. We need to remember that the magic of outdoor play isn’t about whether there’s a stream or a tree to climb, it’s about the endless opportunities and freedom that an open-ended setting provides. It’s not that it’s crucial for a child to have a stream to splash in, or to make mud pies it’s that a child have the chance to explore whatever is in their environment. A curb can become a balance beam as easily as a log can, the key is in how the adults teach children to approach novel situations and open-ended materials, and how the adults encourage and scaffold the children’s experiences. It doesn’t matter whether the play is in a city or forest, a park or a beach, what matters is that the play happens.