I rarely say “be careful” to my kids… only “concentrate” or “awareness…” (in a sterner voice). I find this to be the most effective way of getting them to slow down and think about what they are doing. I don’t want to make them fearful of what they are doing, more over I feel it puts the responsibility of the feat they are undertaking in their hands, albeit under my very watchful eye.
Don’t think I am reckless with my children’s safety. I simply feel that I am helping prepare them for the challenges they will meet in life; real, physical, professional, emotional, characterful challenges, by emotionally taking on what they experience in their childhood. And this is what imaginative play and risky play does for our children.
One of our favourite places to play is Moors Valley Country Park. Moors Valley is a joint venture between East Dorset District Council and the Forestry Commission, set in a forest with cycle tracks, adventure play grounds, miniature steam engines, lakes and lots more (They do good coffee and ice creams too!).
We have been going to this forest for about 6 years and it has evolved with my children’s expanding abilities and boundaries. This forest is the perfect example of good quality play and design and provides a thoroughly engaging play experience for children of all ages. One of the keys to a play experience being enriching for me is the quality of the play tool, that it is versatile, simple, engaging and provides various opportunities for use as the children feel is needed.
Moors Valley offers plenty to do for all of the family but I am only going to talk only about the Play Trail today, which easily takes up a full day in my family’s book! The Play Trail runs for about a mile through woodland and along this route you will come across various wooden play structures for the kids to play on and in. These structures are beautifully made of wood and ropes, they are creative and simple in format and evoke such grisly and enticing topics as a Snake Pit (involving the children gleefully disappearing down long wooden snake tunnels through the snakes open mouths!), Spiders Web, Crocodile Crossing, or even more scary, The house of Baba Yaga (my kids favourite).
I remember starting the trail with one 6 year old boy a while back who was generally timid and lacked confidence in his physical skills. After he successfully and stealthily crossed the Crocodile Crossing (involving balancing and walking along a long, narrow, shoulder height bridge) you could see his courage rising, he jumped off that structure a confident and happy chap and raced off with his friends to take on the next structure, a complete change to the boy that entered the wood cautious to let go of his mother’s leg!
Timber! encourages the children to climb up a hill of fallen timber that have created a Jengar like path that you have to thread your way through, negotiating tricky passes from one fallen piece of timber to the next. This involves climbing at height, balancing, negotiating crossings, it involves strength, concentration, decision making and nerve. These lengths of timber are not just ground level but often high up, leaning against other pieces of timber, carved to create foot holes. I could literally see my 6 year old girl inflate with pride when she first completed the course, and I saw her confidence in her own ability soar whilst my own expectations of her physical abilities and her sense of courage was challenged.
Our current favourite is The house of Baba Yaga. This fantastic wooden acorn like house can be accessed by climbing in and exited by sliding down poles. It has a fantastic internal and external sand distribution system for moving the sand from outside to the inside and back again in a cycle with troughs, pulleys and buckets and this totally engages children’s imagination.
I love to watch children play here, the set up encourages children to work in groups, maybe a mixture of friends they have come with and friends they have just met. The ages are invariably mixed too, so you get little ones learning more from working with older kids and the older ones looking out for and nurturing the younger ones. The kids learn to negotiate, work in teams, communicate and problem solve, they play imaginatively and they challenge themselves physically. The level of focus and engagement in this play is remarkable and encouraging, this is what good quality play looks and feels like!
At the end of the day my children return to the car, invariably walking barefoot along the dusty paths in the woodland, tired, happy, grubby and totally played out. A perfect day!