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)