Perseverance, discipline, responsibility and independence are learned skills. I will differentiate skills from knowledge in that knowledge can be contained in books whereas skills are learned only by doing and usually by trial and error. The process of acquiring skills is, I think, hugely important to the development of people. In the process of acquiring other skills, like playing an instrument, baking, or building a car for example, you pick up side skills along the way. These side skills include, but aren’t necessarily limited to, perseverance, discipline, responsibility and independence.

These four, in my opinion, major life skills, are very much on my mind at the moment because of my interactions with my 9th grade students. Over the course of the last two years my opinion of what is going on with these kids has been changing. I initially thought they were a bunch of lazy gits who were more interested in socializing than learning. I am coming to the conclusion that they aren’t lazy so much as helpless. In conversations I have had with them I am learning that many of them have never had to do anything on their own and have never really been held accountable for the consequence of their actions. How on earth are they to learn how to act on their own if they are so protected? As an example, in teaching science I schedule labs. Many of these labs are like following recipes, you have a set of steps you do in order and you take down the results of following those steps. These labs demonstrate processes and show how things work. The thing of it is, if I am not actively watching every step for every group, impossible since I have not yet been cloned, the students will stop until specifically instructed to do the next step. If the students meet something that confuses them they will not act if I don’t get to them to answer their question. Often they won’t even make it known to me or any of their peers that they need help. If, on a lab like this, I get half the assignments completed in the allotted time I count it a victory. Personally, this makes me sad as well as more than a little worried for the future of these people and the world. At what point are they going to miraculously learn to act on their own. This level of passivity does not bode well for society if the bulk of its population is willing to accept anything that happens to them and only act if it receives direction from on high.

So what does this have to do with nature? A lot, actually. The children I am seeing have grown up in controlled environments and have spent more time in structured play than in imaginative free play. When I ask them what they do with their free time they say they play video games–rules are fixed and immutable, watch DVDs–a completely passive activity, go to movies or shop–consumptive and passive. Please do not think that I believe that there is no role for this technology. None of these activities are intrinsically bad in and of themselves. I just think that structured play needs to be balanced with a hefty dose of unstructured free roaming play. I believe this more strongly because of the response I get if I ask if my students play outside: they say “it’s too hot and too boring.” These kids don’t know how to make their own constructive fun because they have never had to.

Playing outside in nature teaches kids to build their fun. They learn to solve problems. If the trunk of the tree is too tall and smooth to climb, some boards, nails and a hammer and you have a ladder to the branches. Wandering into the poison ivy patch teaches you to avoid it next time or to take a hot soapy scrub if you didn’t. Having your fort blow down overnight in a strong wind teaches you to start over and build better. Getting dumped off your bike when you hit the unseen rock teaches you to be more observant, brush your scrapes off and keep going. Taking a wrong turn and getting lost on the way to a distant place teaches you to find your way to landmarks and keep going. Successfully navigating the pitfalls that happen when you are acting alone teaches you that you can get out of the problems that can pop up in life. It teaches you to believe in your own competence, a feeling that you get about yourself when you have persevered, acted independently with discipline and learned to be responsible for your own outcomes.

Teaching kids to play needs to begin early when kids are still curious. If you wait till the child is old enough to be completely unsupervised they will not be interested. In the past, older siblings and neighbors took the younger children in hand and had a role in bringing them along in learning how to be safe while playing on their own. Since it may well be that we have lost a generation of free roaming children, adults will have to take a hand in teaching this current generation that they can make their own fun outside and learn to be independent people on the way.

What were your childhood playgrounds and what did they teach you?