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Private nature

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As a child, my favorite place in the world was my grandparents' farm in Minnesota. My grandfather would often take me for walkabouts on those 200 acres—just me, him and a pack of German shepherds, removing downed trees from pathways, repairing footbridges, hunting for dens of hibernating animals that shared the land. Before I'd head into the cold Northern winters, Grandma bundled me up with layers of Grandpa's hats and scarves. Itchy and covered in burrs, they smelled stale and sweet, like cold air touched by a hint of scotch. With our faces buried beneath, Grandpa and I didn't say much, but I remember well the soundtracks of crunching snow, panting dogs and breeze-tickled bare twigs.

I grew up and moved away, of course, so I don't go walking in those woods anymore. Recently, I attended a Natural Learning Initiative conference in Chapel Hill titled "Natural Play Environments." The aim was clear enough—to encourage children to get outdoors—but the conference had some unintended effects for me, too.

One conference speaker talked about "secret spaces," or the places you went as a child, where nobody could bother you, where your imagination ran rampant. We all had these places growing up: Mine was a milkweed-covered hill crawling with caterpillars behind my neighbor's house. Now, though, childhood seems to be even more full of activities that keep children away from outdoor isolation. Between tutoring sessions, soccer practices, ballet rehearsals and digital living, the moments children have to themselves become fewer and fewer.

Indeed, speakers shared statistics about "screen time" versus "outdoor time," displaying graphs on global rates of ADHD and obesity. While it's no news that the United States does poorly in both, the density of these two incidences in my adopted South were disappointing.

At the end of the conference, we stopped talking numbers and plans and actually got to play. We built dens out of sticks and twine and learned about activities that children could share in the wild. Throughout the weekend, conference leaders emphasized that while nature play can be very active, social and intentional, there should also be moments for children to find passive and individual interactions with the world around them. The goal, after all, is to increase nature play in the lives of children. The last thing we want is a standardized curriculum with strands of objectives evaluating a child's "stick competency" or "mud comprehension." That is, this should be their nature.

I'm taking that advice: The conference reminded me how much I love being in nature myself. So, as the acorns fall hard and a harsh winter looms (well, harsh for North Carolina's standards, I presume), I'll be shopping for a big woolen scarf and an oversized hat to keep me warm for my upcoming outdoor adventures.

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