One Piece of Wood — And A Mom Who Did NOT Say, “Try it This Way, Honey!”


This trekdsyrfi
essay at Nature Play Nanny
gets at one of my pet peeves: nature visits that treat the great outdoors like the Louvre — magnificent, precious, and only to be appreciated with a guide:

“Which group are you supposed to be with? Are you here with a parent? Where is your mom?”

I heard the woman snappishly asking these questions, but at first I didn’t realize she was speaking to one of my children. We were at one of the nature centers we visit frequently, and the woods were buzzing with groups of school kids. One of the groups was being led by a naturalist, through the nature exploration area, after being told that they were not to stop and play. The woman with all the questions was either a teacher or parent.

It seems like every time we visit this particular nature center, the kids are questioned like this by some overly  concerned adult. I’m not sure why this irritates me so much, but it does.

My teeth are gritting along with the blogger’s, who makes a point that is so wise: While the naturalists encourage kids to come back another day, really — what would motivate the kids to do so?

I think it’s unfortunate that they don’t stop and let the children play while they’re there. The visits come with a limit on time, so I understand why they can’t, but I’m sure the children would benefit more from fifteen or twenty minutes of nature play than they would from the worksheets they’re rushed back to school to complete.

Anyway, on this particular trip, the kids DID get a chance to encounter a piece of wood:

First, they made a seesaw by positioning the wood across a log. The wood wasn’t quite long enough for the seesaw to be lasting, so next, the they made several attempts at creating what they called a launcher.

I am trying to be aware of the times where I barge in and tell them the best way to do something, rather than let them figure it out on their own through trial and error. It was difficult to sit back and watch them struggle with the launcher, until I realized they weren’t getting upset about the failed attempts, but were instead able to see for themselves the changes they needed to make in order for the launcher to work.

You can read what the kids finally did with the wood here. It’s not like they invented the Large Haldron Collider. But what they did do was play — that weird, old-fashioned thing that involves time, creativity, goofing up, and adults…standing back. – L.


A Leave it to Beaver-era moment in the woods.

A Leave it to Beaver-era moment in the woods.


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30 Responses to One Piece of Wood — And A Mom Who Did NOT Say, “Try it This Way, Honey!”

  1. Cassie February 24, 2016 at 7:37 am #

    I like this. I believe in this. We often think we are teaching by adding our two-cents, but instead we are interrupting their thoughts and forcing them to focus on our voice, our knowledge, our solutions. In doing so the child loses.

    It even has a name “Constructivism”, I learnt a lot about it when studying to be a teacher. Our professor bemoaned that it was virtually impossible to teach this way in a modern classroom (due to time constraints and the sheer number of students), but he made sure we understood that it was by far the superior way to learn, and encouraged to at least try to implement it in our classrooms.

  2. M. February 24, 2016 at 7:52 am #

    Of all the ways parenting has gone over the deep end, parents micromanaging their kids’ play is the behavior that irks me the most. Though I’ll admit to not being sure how far to let my kid go when we’re exploring outside. My son is 4.5 and one of those “typical” rough and tumble kids. We have a botanical garden close to our house that is more woods than flowers, and mainly my son wants to jab, poke, and hit things with sticks (mostly branches and tree trunks). So while I want him to play and explore and do what he wants, I also don’t want him to destroy everything in his wake so others can’t do the same. Is there a happy medium? Just curious as to everyone’s thoughts.

  3. MichaelF February 24, 2016 at 8:10 am #

    I have one son who can appreciate nature, for maybe 5 minutes before he is on to something else, another who would rather dig holes in the back yard or hit things with sticks. It makes it hard to go to gardens and places where there are flowerbeds and beautiful things to look at, so I decided he was not ready. Instead we do hiking trails, go to the conservation lands near us because then if he wants to hit stuff who cares, its just the woods and it won’t do too much damage there. Typically there is so much to look at I don’t end up getting upset about a few tree whacks since he is off to something else.

  4. M February 24, 2016 at 8:29 am #

    This reminds me of a nature camp I sent one of my sons to one summer when he was 3. The camp took place in a park that has a large area of woods. On the last day of camp I was asked to stay with him because apparently he “was not ready” for the camp and was “causing too many problems”. He was doing things like picking up sticks, and not staying with the group. At the camp they spent the first 30 minutes sitting on the grass reading books. The next 30 minutes singing songs while still sitting on the grass near the entrance to the park. They then planted flowers (that was good). After that they took the kids back to the grass and “quizzed” them on what they had learned that week. They would ask these little 3 and 4 year olds questions, and they got a stamp on their arm for every question they got right. Some of the kids did not understand the connection and were getting upset because they were not getting any stamps. They then took a very short walk through the woods, where the kids were required to go at the pace that the adults wanted to go. Finally, they were back on the grass reading more books. Now, I love reading, and fully support kids being read too. But I sent him to a nature camp, not a library camp. This was the most controlled, developmentally inappropriate camp I have every seen.

  5. Diane February 24, 2016 at 9:20 am #

    Thanks for sharing. A lot of the nature centers, especially in urban areas such as where I live, tend to take this attitude, and I understand, since large volumes of people are experiencing a tiny slice of “nature” there. Kind of like having baseball practice for a team, and everyone has to share one glove. But there’s no excuse for adults to pass that off as optimal to the kids, instead of their natural impulses to explore, which will involve a certain amount of destruction.
    I try to take my kids to areas not so controlled. We go to a big park here in Houston sometimes, but instead of staying in the picnic area, we find paths through the woods down to the bayou, exploring along the way. My 11 yr old is into finding June bug larvae this week, and dug up a little one in the dirt in front of the school yesterday to show me what they looked like. It’s so easy to say, “hurry up, let’s go” but so much better to wait two minutes for a little digging.
    I’ve told this story before, about a lady from my church who told the kids at family camp they were not to “touch any rocks” because sooner or later, someone might feel the need to throw one. Needless to say, the rest of the weekend every time I saw a remotely interesting rock, I picked it up and let my kids examine it. No throwing ensued, even though my kids do love to throw rocks and have, unfortunately, thrown them at each other at times.

  6. Diane February 24, 2016 at 9:24 am #

    @M, what a worthless experience for your 3 yr old! That would be like having library time in which a kid couldn’t check out, look at, or select any books. They could only listen to the story being read by the librarian.

    Oh, wait, I bet that happens on a regular basis in plenty of our schools and community libraries, too!

  7. Workshop February 24, 2016 at 9:32 am #

    “You can learn more from doing something wrong than from doing something right.” – Workshop

  8. lollipoplover February 24, 2016 at 10:52 am #

    While I think more exploratory play can happen on these school visits to nature centers, I’ve also been a volunteer on a field trip and have witnessed kids who are cooped up on the bus ride and go all Lord of the Flies or destroy the natural habitat and that is not cool either. Nature centers want to educate and promote conservation in young children. They shouldn’t have to put up with destructive behaviors.

    On our field trip, there was significant free play and exploration. We covered close to a mile of trails and the kids had to wear waterproof boots as they explored the creeks and waterbeds for living creatures to look at under a microscope. They worked with each other in teams and I just carried the big backpack with the supplies and made sure no one ran away or got lost. I did head counts. There was one kid who picked up large rocks in the creek and thought it funny to throw them at other groups to splash them with water. Since the kids didn’t have a change of clothes, I told him to stop throwing rocks near other people who didn’t want to get wet. He threw them towards the open spaces which I didn’t have a problem with. Being respectful of others and the environment while learning is not always a given.

  9. Dean Whinery February 24, 2016 at 12:48 pm #

    Sounds like a bunch of people need to be referred to this blog, and maybe “Last Child in the Woods”.

  10. BL February 24, 2016 at 1:12 pm #

    “I’ve also been a volunteer on a field trip and have witnessed kids who are cooped up on the bus ride and go all Lord of the Flies or destroy the natural habitat and that is not cool either.”

    Not surprising that upon their first encounter with something more natural than cement or plastic they’d not know what to do at first.

  11. K February 24, 2016 at 2:01 pm #

    The book Last Child in the Woods touches on the fact that previous generations got in touch with nature in ways that many people today would consider destructive. I think he talked about John Muir shooting seagulls, and Beatrix Potter killing small animals to dissect. But it’s precisely that really intimate experience of the natural world that creates some of our greatest naturalists and preservationists! If Muir had been made to come inside and stop being destructive, maybe a couple of gulls would have been saved, but how many millions of acres of National Parks would have been lost to development? I try to think of this every time I have the impulse to tell my toddler to stop picking the petals off of flowers.

    Of course, I don’t have much choice when they’re someone else’s flowers. And with so much less nature left to experiment with today, I can understand the impulse to absolutely preserve what’s still there.

  12. lollipoplover February 24, 2016 at 2:18 pm #


    Exactly. I don’t fault the kids yet at the same time, there is that one kid in every group, it seems. Kids should pick up sticks, make a walking stick, use a stick to poke under rocks, and explore freely. Just don’t use your stick to smack someone in the head.

    I don’t volunteer to micromanage kids who should enjoy a fun and engaging field trip. I also don’t want to triage head wounds.
    It’s all about balance…

  13. Havva February 24, 2016 at 3:20 pm #

    This, and M’s comment, and Cassie’s comment too, all speak to how much we have all become over scheduled. I don’t do half what other parents seem to do, and even so, I feel like I don’t give my child enough time to explore and play in an open ended manner. It is bad enough when the scheduling is necessary, like needing to get them home with enough time to make dinner before the kid gets ravenously hungry. Or when an urban daycare has a small playground and has to schedule each class to ensure all the kids get to go outside to run and jump and climb and play. But to schedule them up at a nature camp with multiple reading and sitting on the grass sessions, just speaks to how much we have become in awe of scheduling, and order, and forgotten the value of deeply engaging with whatever sparks curiosity, interest, and energy.

  14. lollipoplover February 24, 2016 at 3:32 pm #

    @Havva- It’s not just nature camps, it’s everything that should be exploratory and hands-on. My daughter has art class in elementary school just once a week. She LOVES art and can work in her art room (she has turned an entire playroom into her studio-it’s pretty awesome) for hours happily. Yet in art class, they often watch a video of the art and only get 10 minutes at the end of class dedicated to actually trying out techniques/methods. She says the videos are boring and not enough time is spent actually making anything.

  15. Cassie February 24, 2016 at 4:26 pm #

    @M and others

    It is okay to teach them boundaries. I would even argue that without all the noise that parents provide the boundaries become much clearer. I.e. Because I am not sitting on the front verandah saying “be careful” and “don’t touch that” etc etc etc, when I do say “don’t go out the front gate” they hear me (or maybe it is just my kids, but I do notice that when I set a rule it is followed, I think because I STFU whenever a boundary is not necessary).

    My kids love to pick all my flowers. I remind myself that they are just flowers, they are destined to die anyway…. but (the big but), I also teach them which flowers they are free to pick madly, and which are to be left alone, and I also plant bushy flowers just for them to go crazy with. (Boundaries, and providing for their need)

    As for digging. My 2yo starting digging a hole in the ground once. It is gone now, abandoned and filled in and you would never know it existed. But for several years I could look into my bag yard and see them just sitting and digging at that hole. Sometimes filling it with things. It became quite big. They loved it… and I made sure my husband realised that kids need a dirt patch in the backyard, a place where digging is absolutely okay… not a sandpit, and actual patch of dirt.

  16. andy February 24, 2016 at 4:43 pm #

    @M I think that happy medium is when you always explain him which flowers are ok to be destroyed and which are not. He won’t probably fully get it at first, but will pick it up over short time. “This flower is difficult to care for and someone is working on it every day, don’t destroy” vs “this is natural park with a lot of ordinary flowers go on”.

    Kids are smart enough to understand simple reasons like that and learn rules like that.

    Also, kids that were taught boundaries end up having more freedom pretty soon – because you can trust them more and don’t need to see them nor keep tight control.

  17. Cassie February 24, 2016 at 4:51 pm #


    We start homeschooling our daughter tomorrow. A huge daunting step that I never thought I would ever do… and pretty much the big reason behind it was overscheduling…. and she was just doing school.

    School holidays came around and I realised how much healthier she was, and how much she was outside learning. I realised school scheduled my daughter from 7.30am (get up, get dressed, brush your hair, do do do do) until 3.30pm when we finally got home. 8hours of non-stop being told what to do.

    I wanted to go the pool, or do a sport, or let her go to a kids afterschool artclass that she loved…. but every time we did something the overscheduling was more noticeable.

    So we began homeschooling. This morning I was woken to my 6yo and 4yo showing me pictures of flags that they had drawn. Dozens of them, copying them from a poster on my study wall. Flags of countries that I had never heard of (Guyanna, Andorra). I pulled the globe down and pointed them to a few. They worked out ways to create their own flagpoles while I ate breakfast.

    If we had school this morning I would have had to stop it all and hustle them to get ready.

  18. Michelle February 24, 2016 at 6:37 pm #

    This is a big part of why you will often find me (if I am there) sitting on a park bench playing with my phone. I love my phone. Every time my kids are doing something perfectly fine and I feel that urge to show them how to do it “right,” I pull out my phone and STFU. Even sometimes working on school work, for example I find that my kids do a much better job of sounding out words if I’m not hovering and jumping in to tell them how each sound goes. Instead, I’m half-listening to them and half-playing Marvel Puzzle Quest.

    I know that some people have a huge problem with parents being on their phones. I don’t give a flying flip. I pay just enough attention to tell my kids what a great job they are doing ON THEIR OWN, and not enough to have to fight not to take over and do it for them. Then everybody is much happier!

    (And before I had a smartphone, I carried a book or a sewing project and did the exact same thing, just less high tech!)

  19. Diana Green February 24, 2016 at 6:59 pm #

    Yea! Cassie! Your kids are my heros!
    Enjoy home schooling! Good decision. If we could let the kids tell us what kind of education they need, and trust them and our faith in them, they would have a freer and healthier life.

  20. CrazyCatLady February 24, 2016 at 11:40 pm #

    When my daughter was in kinder, the class took a trip to the beach. Actually, the Pacific Ocean, which was all of 15 minutes from the school. Having been along on two other trips, I knew there would be a mad rush to “get kids to their bus!” at the end of the trip, and I didn’t really want the brat who poked holes in my seat again, so I told the teacher that I would be driving my daughter….and not returning to the school. This entirely flustered the teacher, but I didn’t care. When they got to the beach, they toured a tiny aquarium and saw the 15 fish, and then went out to the sand.

    And that was it. The sand. We had one adult for every two kids (even including my two preschool sons I brought along) and they had a roped off area that the 5 year olds couldn’t hardly even see over the small crest of sand to see the water. My daughter’s teacher was scared that the kids might go in the water and get taken by the current. So she put everyone so far back that if they made a break for the water there would be plenty of time for the parents stationed on the water side to catch up.

    It was THE most boring trip to the beach that my kids ever had. Most of the time was spent digging in the sand, then they had snack and then they had to run all the stop signs to get the kids back to the school in time for the two kids who rode the bus. (My daughter was one of them, but she was with me.)

    I stayed after with one other parent and her son….and we had a GRAND time after everyone left (the teacher with a warning about the waves as we were staying.) We went out on the dock and saw the concrete boat from WWII and talked about that with the kids. Then we went under the dock and saw the starfish and aenenomies that were on the pilings. Then….we ate lunch, looked for rocks with holes drilled by snails, then, gasp….actually went in the water up to our knees and splashed in the water and I educated the other parent and kid about the currents….It was a little too cold for swimming, but we did, finally, after everyone else left, learned something about the beach.

    Then, like Cassie, above, for 2nd grade, I homeschooled and ALL of our trips were like the beach one after everyone left. We could take our time, not be forced to get to a bus….and really go into the depth that my kids wanted. When there was a homeschool day at the Monterrey Aquarium…unlike the school groups who spend two hours, one in a classroom doing worksheets with specimens….we spent the WHOLE day REALLY looking at all of the exhibits. And if there was something that my kids didn’t want to spend time on….we didn’t. No “treasure hunts” or getting “stamps” from each area or anything like that…just learning just for the sake of learning. And they enjoyment of what we were seeing. Jelly fish are amazing things. So was the white shark that we got to watch swimming around. And if we had been hurried….we wouldn’t have known that the otters liked to play “tag” by swimming with the kids who ran back and forth outside their exhibit. Pretty fun for the kids to discover, with such cute critters!

  21. James Pollock February 25, 2016 at 12:07 am #

    Coincidentally, my daughter’s school had a field trip to the Pacific when she was in first grade, although we’re considerably more than 15 minutes away. Our trip included a visit to the wreck of the Peter Iredale ( (just a steel skeleton survives, though, coincidentally, there was ANOTHER “shipwreck” the morning we were there (a fishing boat beached about a half-mile down the beach… we could see it, and the tug crew trying to get it back into deep water.) There’s also a visit to the Civil War fortifications (Yes, Oregon was a state during the Civil War, having achieved statehood just two years before the Great Unpleasantness.) There was a third stop, inland, where there was a park with enough covered picnic tables for a school’s worth of first-graders to eat lunch.

    Oregonian schoolchildren are not inclined to go in the water during the school year. It’s cold.

  22. CrazyCatLady February 25, 2016 at 12:14 am #

    James, I am glad that other schools are not the “Rush, rush, rush!” that my daughter’s school was! And yeah…any further north than where I was in CA….you want a wet suit. I actually wanted a wet suit most of the time anyhow. Now that we are in Eastern WA, my kids want to go to the beach and swim….in WA….does not appeal to me at all…but we will get there some day! And maybe visit a fort, dig some clams and do some other fun stuff that people do in WA. Though…when we drove up the coast of OR, they have some REALLY cool things right off the beach….

  23. James Pollock February 25, 2016 at 1:02 am #

    In my nearly-forgotten youth, I used to swim in Lake Washington, and I went to summer camp in the San Juan Islands.

    I have a long story, which I will cut substantially shorter. The university I went to required three credits of P.E. for graduation, and the three had to be taken in different quarters. My ex-wife put hers off until senior year, and then had to drop one of them for health reasons. She completed all the requirements for a degree except the P.E. requirement. I moved away to take a job, and she came with me… no degree in hand. A couple of years passed, and she decided to take a P.E. class at the local community college, then petition to transfer it to the university and thus, be eligible to graduate. (It turned out, while she’d been away, her entire department was dissolved, meaning she was the last person with that degree from that school… two or three years after they stopped offering any courses in it.)
    All that was the set up.
    For the P.E. class, she decided to take white-water rafting. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun? It does… until you realize that this class is being conducted during the school year, and, in April and May, the water that’s in the rivers… the Clackamas, the Little North Santiam, and the Rogue…well, that water was snow yesterday. Well, not all of it, because nice, fresh, only-slightly-warmer-than-snow water is also falling out of the sky. So, I’d drive her up to where the put all the boats in the water, drop her off, then drive down to the take-out point, find a coffee-shop, and drink hot chocolate and watch the rain for a couple of hours, and eventually, some very cold, very wet people would come trudging up from the park, and drip all over the coffee-shop floors, while the course instructor did the post-mortem on who did what right and who did what wrong. .
    (OK, it’s also true that during the summer months, the water in those rivers was snow yesterday. But in the summertime, that’s a good thing.)

  24. James Pollock February 25, 2016 at 1:06 am #

    I have a story about Eastern Washington, too. When I was about 13, instead of going to summer-camp, I went on a trip to Yellowstone, starting in Seattle. Driving through Eastern WA, in mid-July, in a van with a dozen other people (this was before GameBoy was invented) in a van with no AC and (AND!) the windows only opened about 2 inches at the bottom. Let’s just say that when it was time to pick a college, WSU was not on my list.

  25. Michael_oz February 25, 2016 at 4:27 am #

    This post makes me appreciate my own childhood.

    In the earlier years, my siblings and I grew up in the “bush”. We had bushland we could explore and a dairy farm “next door” that we could visit. This gave us well over 100 acres to explore. This doesn’t include the national park over the road.

    I could tell many stories of adventures we had. We were truly free-range.

    One story: we had friends over (who were also free range) and we took this unregistered Holden Gemini “bush basher” through the national park on these bush tracks.

    At one time we got stuck (due to a flat tyre), but us kids (early to mid teens) managed to get the car moving again. And yes, there were no parents around.

    In hindsight, we may have been a little too free-range, but we grew up to be fairly normal people.

    (@Cassie: Oh, and I was also homeschooled)

  26. Yocheved February 25, 2016 at 8:13 am #

    I am a huge nature lover. I’m always the first parent to sign up for field trip chaperone to places like that. I always let my group linger a bit if they see something cool. Puget Sound has some wonderful areas under the piers. There’s nothing like watching a kid getting squirted in the face by a goeduck!

    Now that I’m in Israel, we live two blocks from the Mediterranean. Every day can be a field trip if we want, and there’s tons of other places just a bus or bike ride away that are totally free range friendly. Israeli culture is seriously into hands on exploration, and kids are expected to be responsible. No coddling!

  27. Cassie February 26, 2016 at 12:13 am #


    I have a fabulous childhood memory of really free-ranging. I was about 13 (so not really that young) and we lived near a small branch of the Snowy River (in Australia).

    The river was amazing, mostly it was underground, under bolders etc, and it appear and disappear in this section near our property.

    In the afternoons I would follow the river as far as I could. I didn’t fear snakes or spiders or getting lost. Nobody knew where I was and I was out of “coo-ee” distance to be sure. I would just explore that amazing place for hours before returning for dinner. I remember finding a mini-beach in the middle of it all, with sand and a tiny pond and a willow tree (all of which disappeared underwater when the river flooded). I remember finding a huge person-sized hole on the top of a big boulder… and then I remember spending hours trying to find it again and never being able to.

    Possible a bit too free-range (why didn’t I care about snakes??) but a fabulous memory all the same.

  28. Andr L. February 27, 2016 at 6:57 pm #

    I think this situation is a bit tricky. National Parks and many other nature reserves/preserves have [i]leave no trace[/i] policies, which are good ones. Especially on busier natural areas, a “grab anything you want” policy is really detrimental to the looks and health of fragile flora. There are ways to teach children this though, the difference between places they should just look and take back only the memories, and the places they can be more interactive with natural elements.

  29. JP Merzetti February 29, 2016 at 12:21 am #

    aw, shucks.
    I figured out how to do about a gazzillion things when I was a kid, either on my own, or with other kids. From rafts to go-cart crates, from home-made baseball bats to a crazy golf set. From hand puppets to kites to every kind of do-it yourself thing imaginable.

    Now it’s all digitized, privatised, supervised and sanitised to death.
    The fun – was kid-centered and kid-friendly.
    No adults allowed.

    When my son was 7, he invented a card game (that is still played hilariously by adults)
    He did it alone.
    He ah, had to listen to his own personal inner voice.

  30. EtobicokeMom February 29, 2016 at 12:08 pm #

    I am all for more exploration. I agree that it is wonderful and that undirected play is awesome. I send my kids to a nature camp that fosters just that philosophy and try to foster it as much as possible at home. But the trouble with this story is that it sounds like the parent was at a local nature centre frequented by multiple school trips. It’s wonderful to be able to play “out of bounds” and not follow the pathways, etc. etc. But can you imagine what would happen if every single kid who came through the place (around here, a nature centre can expect literally 1000s of children every month) were allowed to smack the plants and trees with sticks and play out of bounds, off the trails? The place would be destroyed in very short order and there would be nothing left for other children to see. Sometimes seeing a bit of nature is better than having nothing left at all.

    Free play is awesome but so is learning respect – respect for the environment and respect for other people who are coming after you to not destroy the place before they get to see it. I think we need to be careful that we do not allow our free-range sensibilities to turn us into “holier-than-thoughs” who are above the rules, who don’t need to stick to the path despite the signs asking us to, just because we want OUR children to have a richer experience.

    I love the main message of the story which is to highlight how creative kids will be when left to their own devices. I just wish it hadn’t come packaged in a criticism of how other people, particularly school groups were sticking to the rules.