Preparing for Nature Play

In preparation for a nature play workshop next week I’ve been putting together some stories and resources to share. The process has been an opportunity to clarify and reflect on the knowledge and experience I’ve gathered. Its been humbling to be reminded that so much of what I know comes from other people, and I realise I’m guilty of forgetting that sometimes. Some of those people who informed the content of this post include Sam Crosby, Erik Erikson, James Marcia, Jordan Peterson, John Piaget, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, James Gibson, Jon Young, Paul Shepard, Louise Chawla, Carl Rogers, Jordan Silver along with countless children and their parents over many seasons of growth and change.

Anyway, returning to my preparation, I wanted to present some information to the participants about affordances in nature play spaces. The word comes from affordance theory, which is a psychological theory about the way we perceive objects. Affordance theory reconciles a purely phenomenological set of presuppositions with a purely objective one, because it claims that while objects exist outside of subjective experience, they appear to people in terms of what they might afford. In other words, what we see is not merely objects in space but more like tools or options or invitations, depending on our constitution and state of consciousness - depending on what we are interested in. That also means we don’t merely see in space but we see in time as well, because our interests change.

This is significant for nature play because of its emphasis on nature connection, which we define as a significant human-nature relationship. Thus the elements in a space designed for nature play are akin to a set of potentials for human-nature relationship. The quality of that relationship depends on the degree to which the various elements can invite and hold people’s attention, combined with the capacity of those people to pay it. But because people naturally pay attention to what they’re interested in, an environment which affords for the subject matter of people’s interests will inevitably give rise to relationships and connection. Note however that real connection cannot be enforced or constructed. It arises spontaneously for each individual from subjective faculties of experience, which is why its so important to encourage and allow for play. Play involves the free exchange of attention and information with affordances in an environment.

So the question is: given that connection takes place in the course of play in relationship to elements in the environment, what kind of elements should be included in a space if the goal is to maximise the potential for nature connection?
Possible answers tend toward those elements which are maximally interesting to the play circuitry of a maximum number of people over a maximal amount of time.

In that regard there is a category of affordance which never runs dry; that is all affordances conducive to the formation of stories. The reason for that is stories are a human universal. We are captivated by them - especially children - and they are the mechanism by which relationships between person and object are mediated. To understand what I mean recall that people perceive objects in terms of what they are interested in. People do not see the objects themselves, rather they see what fits (or doesn’t fit) with whatever direction is being compelled by their interests. And here’s the kicker. People organise themselves in line with their interests through stories. They tell themselves stories about who they are, where they come from, and what they’re doing. Those stories form the aspect of their psyches which mediates between interest and object, often referred to as ego. In other words, people are always telling stories and always acting them out.

Children, for reasons probably to do with premature identity development (which eventually shrinks the set of possible stories to act out because of commitments to particular values, and decreases the degree to which aspects of the self might be projected onto objects because of an internalised frame of reference), tend to act out stories with greater freedom. (As a side note, its often the goal of therapy to provide conditions necessary for the formation of new stories where old ones have become rigid and oppressive so as to enable the individual to move on, and in the course of that process individuals often need to return to child-like states of mind).

Which all goes to say that the best kind of nature play spaces are full of elements which afford play action. Over time and guided by others I’ve developed an index of what those affordances are. Though not exhaustive, it serves as a resource of information.

Of course, the question then became for me: how to share that information with others? How to communicate it in a way that captures their attention? That’s when my mind was blown by the realisation that I would need to create a space in which people could play and tell stories with the information I had - in the direction of their interest, which in this case would be somewhat shared; that is, to include nature play in their learning spaces and programs.

The ‘space’ I’m referring to is a page. A diagram. And who better to ask for advice on such things then my brother Jordan, architect and similarly obsessive space cadet. Jordan pointed me in the direction of John Hejduk, who over the course of his career developed an ideosyncratic set of symbols for the elements of actual and imagined spaces, along with corresponding stories and poems. I was immediately struck by the style of Hejduk’s work and so took a similarly inspired approach. The result was this image (below), which is now part of a larger and growing set of resources I plan to use as an accompaniment to the workshop I deliver next week and beyond on nature play.

Index of Affordances (2019)

Index of Affordances (2019)

Letters Home #6 "The Light Side"

This letter is available to listen to on a Remote Voice podcast. Here or on iTunes or Stitcher.

Letter #6 “The Light Side"

Watching the sky to the east, it appears as though the day begins when the sun arrives, and similarly, that the moon rises when the sun sets. However, from a stellar distance we'd see that the sun and the moon stay relatively still, while the earth spins between them. Thus, like figureheads on the prow of a cosmic ship - like sea lions lazing on a galactic shore, it is we who turn to the sun each morning, and each evening we turn to the moon. 

I dreamt up that analogy late one afternoon under a purpling sky. What a beautiful image, I thought. Like a proud cat I arched my back and gave a little purr. Then a chorus of birds erupted into song. Like tiny angels. I closed my eyes. It was all I could do amidst the cacophony to keep myself from expecting to hear the voice of God. In the back of my mind a deluded sage rehearsed his reply. Stay humble, he thought, but also measured and assertive. We wouldn’t want God to think that of all the great poets to receive his message, this time he’d chosen one without a spine. Suddenly the chorus gave way. And from the north a sound rippled through the silence towards me. I opened my arms to the heavens, ready to take my place among the ascended saints - then it hit me - like a bucket of cold water - a raucous cackle. A Kookaburra laughing. I felt shame gather in my cheeks and pool in my eyes. Then erupt from my mouth in a laugh of my own. O Kookaburra! I thought, now you’ve seen me naked! And what can I do, but laugh?

In my last letter I wrote my way out of the impulse to start a revolution. Nevertheless, with my feet on the ground, there remained a need for bilingual education at Gapuwiyak School. So I spoke with some Yolngu teachers and organised to run bilingual lessons during my time with the students. They were thrilled. And the balanda teachers I spoke to had long harboured thoughts along bilingual lines but hadn’t the time to know where to start. So in the end, the best response to a grand problem was a small gesture. 

On the day of our first bilingual session, walking down to the lake, one of the elder Yolngu teachers, Kath, took me aside for a word of advice. We’d planned to have the boys build a traditional shelter called a warro. And for the girls to wrap mud babies in paperbark and learn traditional ways to care for the young. Like a big game of 'house'. Afterwards the students would turn the game into storybooks for future reading practice. With regard to the game, said Kath, we should try and make it funny. If its too serious they won’t understand. I didn’t quite know what she meant, but I followed her lead. 

As planned, the girls made mud babies and wrapped them in paperbark. They built a small nursery and put the babies to sleep. But when a curious dog approached, Kath took the opportunity - with a big smile - to pretend that one of the babies had been snatched by a dingo. She rallied the girls and they rushed to the boys, who by then were under their shelter, painted like warriors with chalky clay. Laughing, the girls relayed the terrible news, and together we searched for the baby. It was eventually found. But it hadn't survived. So together we mourned. And next week we’ll hold a pretend funeral. The children can’t wait. Funerals are a deeply significant part of Yolngu culture so it will be a wonderful opportunity to continue the serious task of continuity. 

Comedy has a way of bringing light to the darkness, making some things easier to see. Which got me thinking about a problem I’ve been puzzling over since I arrived in Arnhem Land six weeks ago. Litter. Its everywhere. In a previous letter I called it the shrapnel left by the bomb blast of modern life. Bottles, bags and various bits and pieces line the streets. Many subscribe to the belief that a population accustomed to biodegradability will take some time to adjust to plastics. But watching people walk by huge bins and brightly coloured signs, I'm beginning to think that any ignorance is more likely the turning of a blind eye. Out here the shop is closest thing to a pub. And some of the problems people face lay at the feet of a diet replete with soft drinks and bread. So it could be that picking up litter would mean taking a good look at insidious lethargy and poor health. A difficult task. But there’s a way. 

Next month there’s going to be a big festival in Gapuwiyak. I joined forces with another artist and we devised a plan to use plastic bottles to build giant animal sculptures with the kids, who loved the idea. Then parade them on the night of the festival. To get started we got out some wheelbarrows and turned up the reggae, then danced our way around town collecting bottles. Our good humour attracted welcome attention from the Buffalo Boys, a group of men who spend their time turning scrap metal into everything from bench seats to barbecues. We enlisted their help to fashion the frames. Its become a collaboration. Who knows, perhaps these sculptures will be the good hearted gesture that makes staring down the bottle that little bit easier.

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