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)

Maps to Guide Aboriginal Ways of Knowing

How do we repair the parts of our culture that pollute our rivers and keep us anxious?

In the last few years I've followed that question all the way to Arnhem Land. My hypothesis is that if we connect more deeply with place we will feel more at ease and learn what it means to take care of the rivers. That’s assuming there is such a thing as a deeper connection place and that anxiety has something do with displacement. So among other things, I’m Arnhem Land to do some research. I’m particularly interested in ways of connecting to place that involve mapping.

I’m conducting research in three ways. First, by living and learning in the remote home of the oldest surviving land based culture on the planet. Second, by reading as much of the related literature as I can. Third, by mapping the places I visit through an arts based practice that involves sound recording and illustration. As far as the second is concerned, I’m learning with members of the Yolngu community in Gapuwiyak about Aboriginal ways of knowing and communicating. I’m also working with the kids at Gapuwiyak School, facilitating arts based projects that align with and express their interests.

In this post I go a little deeper into mapping as a concept and learning tool. And I share an example of how I'm using mapping in the field.

Its nothing new to say that visual representations describe complex problems in a way that’s easy to read. Even the earliest scientific textbooks, dating back 2,300 years, contain diagrams (see here). Back then, like today, it would be quite a challenge for a science without pictures to appeal to a popular audience.

The same is true for mythology and fiction. In both cases the use of poetic language conjures scenes in the imagination of the reader. A book that fails to create an engaging world - or reader without a suitable catalogue of imagery for the language used - is likely to be put down after a few pages. The reader might then say something like, “I just couldn’t get into it…”

Stories and diagrams with wider appeal than specific cultural or linguistic contexts, tend to tap into a catalogue of imagery that overlaps those boundaries. Where that occurs we begin to find the use of words like archetype. But this is not a post about archetypes. Its about maps.

Maps are spacial images that use a set of symbols, arranged by relative position, to represent a landscape and its features. In nature education topographical maps are often used to teach kids how to orient and navigate, as well as how to identify things in the world based on symbolic representation. Maps are also used to great effect in art therapy, to symbolise and set out aspects of a person’s inner experience. They can be very helpful in alleviating anxieties relating to overwhelm and/or feeling stuck. In both cases the symbols on the map are abstract representations of things actually in the world. In the same way that words are abstract representations of meaning. Only a sentence is harder to understand than a map because its visual dimension is limited to things like the order of words, choice of font and character spacing. That’s why a picture can tell a thousand words.

For a really interesting discussion of the way our minds use symbols to interpret reality I recommend listening to this talk on the Neuropsychology of Symbolic Representation by Professor of Psychology at the University of Toronto, Dr Jordan Peterson.

In education, visual representations of information are common. Students will often be asked to draw and interpret diagrams. And they will often be encouraged to create posters or mind maps that help them explain and understand concepts. But there is seldom an emphasis on those visual representations having anything to do with geography or topography. Indeed topographical maps are usually stowed away for the few weeks of the year when teachers see fit to tick the much maligned geography boxes in their handbook of curricular outcomes. Either that or they hang on the wall like laminated afterthoughts, shyly suggesting that things might be different someplace else.

But there is a missed opportunity in that approach. Because the thing about maps is that they have an almost infinite capacity for the storage of information on multiple levels of analysis. On an outline of Australia its possible to lay out everything from variations in temperature to the structure of liberal democracy. Not only that but geographical maps can also represent time and travel. Its possible to mark out journeys from one point to another. And its possible to represent symbolically what happened or might happen along the way. Which opens things up into the realm of literacy and storytelling. And there’s more. By virtue of their speciality, maps attract some of the most breathtaking applications of geometry imaginable. All in a language we’re hardwired to understand. 

Add to that the fact that using maps in this way creates a list of affordable learning excursions into the world that kids actually inhabit, and you are beginning to tap into the potential for map making as a tool for connecting to place.

Okay, time for some examples.

Gapuwiyak is a town that I described in another post as being the size of a postage stamp. Its positioned adjacent to a lake with a diameter of around 1km during the dry season. Surrounding the town and lake on all sides is a forest of eucalyptus, grass trees, shrubs and the occasional cyprus pine.

The first thing I do with every class is bring up an image of the area on Google Maps. Whether I’m planning to go down the path of literacy or artistry and no matter the age group, I start with that image. I look at it with the kids, move it around a little and point out some land marks. Basically I spend some time adjusting to the idea that this will be our frame of reference. Then I go into what I have planned. Here is an example from primary school class I'm taking for 90 minutes each week. The example documents the first two of those weeks to date.

Project Title “Rali (Here)”

This project aims to establish a bilingual frame of reference and provide some explanation for its relevance, provide a narrative, arts based scaffold for curricular education, ground that education in place and experience and cultivate a sense of shared responsibility and belonging.

To be continued...

I'll post other examples of this sort of thing from various angles and with various age groups in the coming weeks. If you'd like to subscribe to receive my letters and updates by email please use the form in the side or at the bottom of the page or click here.