Nature and free play will save our children

Welcome to the Biophilia Project blog.
Let me introduce myself in this very first post which I hope will be followed by many more.

I am a mother of two wonderful girls.
I am also a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend.
And just to give you a better picture, I am a dreamer, a city-farmer, a pet-lover, and besides, an outdoor learning facilitator.
Oh yeah. I am also a blogger now.

A few years ago I started my project, the Biophilia Project, to create a cultural movement to help families spending more time outdoor and provide their children with space and the time to enjoy free, unstructured play.

I did it for many reasons, mainly because I am a mom. I’m good at observing things around me. I’ve seen how hard it is for lots of children to cope with many aspects of our society.

I’ve noticed how hard it is for parents too.
Someone calls it “rat race”, someone calls it “city life”, someone calls it “modern times”.

I spent 33 years of my life, living a very outdoorsy life in Italy. Then I moved to London and when I was 35, I had my first child. Three years later, after deciding to move to the far west, my second one was born in San Francisco, where we lived for two more years.
In California, life was just as we wanted.
Trips to the beach trips to the mountains, sunny days spent breathing fresh air.
My first child who was two and a half at that time has been enrolled in a Steiner inspired preschool.
At that time we didn’t even know what that means and we basically followed our instinct, choosing a very nature-based and warm environment over a very academic preschool
That event has transformed me forever.
The founder and main teacher, teacher Cindy, has changed our lives in so many positive ways that, no matter how many times I’ll tell this story, it won’t fade away and we will always feel this immense grateful sentiment.

In 2014, we moved back to London. The impact has been brutal.
It was February, the temperature was dropping under zero degrees and it was raining dogs and cats, as they say here.
I realized how life was going to be different for us in a city that despite the great green spaces, had a very indoor culture, maybe due to the wet weather.
I tried to stay positive and moved on, visiting museums and theatres and booking workshops and classes.

My mind was full of thoughts and questions and doubts and fears.
I had this constant feeling that things were a bit wrong, a bit too detached from our natural human essence.

We were missing the great outdoor, so I started to look around and found woods, not far from where we live, that we started visiting regularly.
I was meeting weekly with other parents during what was called a Nature Play session. Through those sessions, where babies and toddlers were free to explore the world in the most natural way, I found many answers to my questions and a way to calm down my anxiety.
I can’t thank Clare Caro (Nature Play founder), enough for opening a window on an alternative way to educate my children, in England.
I spent a few months visiting the woods regularly, enjoying the profound serenity transmitted by nature, and learning to appreciate the noise produced by my daughter’s incessant free play.

I learned the importance of observation. I felt somehow like a scientist. My big lens was focused on my daughters and I slowly started to notice how learning unfolds through the most simple and natural work of children: play.

I started to realize that the answer to all my questions was right there: spending unstructured time in nature.

Free, unsupervised, unstructured play, was very common and natural when I was a child.
Today, that incredibly important part of our life, which unlocks so many development processes, has been reduced to a bunch of minutes a day, sometimes even less.

We used to go out and play, every day, for many hours a day, and adults were not allowed to join.
That was it, as simple as that.
That playtime was incredibly rich in all sorts of experiences and adventures: climbing trees, making potions, discovering bugs, hiding, getting in trouble, fighting, laughing, running, experimenting.
It was intense and full of meaning.
It was happiness, craziness, fearful adventure, and dreamy suspended time.
We were all together, big and small, boys and girls, loud and shy.

Today, too many children don’t spend enough time playing outdoors.

Some of them don’t even know what free play is.

They live a very structured life, built around our needs.
It has been argued a move away from children being active in the outdoors is the product of overburdened educators with a full curriculum, working or busy parents and an increasing culture of risk and fear throughout society (Cutter-Mackenzie et al, 2014, Malone 2007, Freeman & Tranter 2011, Gill 2007)

Whatever the reason is, today, more than ever, there is a need to correct this broken system.
And now, for the first time, we have a huge door open on this opportunity.

The beginning of the pandemic and the consequent necessary lockdown has put parents all over the world, in front of something they were not prepared to do: parenting 24/h a day and homeschooling.

This has been a huge, sudden change in our society. It has exposed the weakness of our system, showing how inadequately and unprepared we are to manage the most natural duty in nature: taking full care of our children.
It also revealed all at once the importance of creativity and flexibility and the capacity to think out of the box.
All things that alternative education promoters have argued for many years, should have been included in-state school, to prepare children for future challenges.

Now the future is here and is requiring all those skills at this very moment.

So, how can we adjust to that?
I believe we simply need to reconnect with our human essence and with nature. To do that, we need to start with simple things, like growing plants or taking care of our community. And let the children play.

There are many pieces of research documenting positive links between nature and human health, social and psychological functioning.

Frances Ming Kuo (2010) founder of the Human-Environment Research Laboratory (HERL), has used the phrase “Vitamin G” (G for “green”) to capture nature’s role as a necessary ingredient for a healthy life.
Dr. Kuo’s body of HERL research firmly established the importance of trees and greenspace to stronger, safer communities and robust concentration, self-control, and coping in individuals, and evidence suggests that, like a vitamin, contact with nature and green environments is needed in frequent, regular doses.

So, Vitamin G is our first ingredient. Go out and enjoy the great outdoors.
The second one, I’ll call it “Vitamin E” where E stands for “explore”.

The Educational Endowment Foundation in the UK which funds “what works” research to provide evidence to inform teaching, reports an 8-month advantage for pupils who experience more metacognitive self-regulated learning. This is where pupils take a more active role in their learning, setting their own targets, evaluating their own academic development, and demonstrating greater intrinsic motivation for learning (EEFb 2015).
But how can they achieve such an independent attitude towards their learning?
Play is the answer, or at least is the main feature. But what sort of play? Child-led play.

To play and explore, in a total child-led way, means developing full creative potential along with a full sense of one’s owns self.

For once, try to forget about adult-led activities and schedules. Learn to go with the flow. Follow the season, the day, the very moment.

This doesn’ t mean to give up on giving guidance.
Also, in my opinion, this can be paired with curriculum-based activities. But it has to be carefully balanced and adjusted to ensure that we leave enough space to a more holistic approach.

Let’s make the best of this opportunity. It doesn’t require much.
Let’s slow down, go out, go with the flow.

Or to say it using the Biophilia Project language: let’s explore, learn, connect.

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