I grew up less than half of a mile from a park with an old stone bridge that New Deal workers built in the 1930s.
When I was 5, somebody told me a troll used to live there, so my younger brother and I spent a week scouring it for signs of troll habitation. It was the best kind of waste of time.
The park was a wonderland for anyone with an imagination and time to burn. It had fields and trails to wander and trees and cliffsides to climb. It had a waterfall that felt substantial until my seventh grade trip to Niagara.
I lost T-ball games and my sense of direction there, kissed girls underneath the sugar maples, ran its trails and lived a significant portion of my life within its borders.
It seemed wild to me — not just “undeveloped,” but unmonitored, as if the adults didn’t know the park extended beyond its running trails. And its interiors belonged to explorer children, recalcitrant teens and raccoons.
In 2005, Richard Louv published a book called “Last Child in the Woods” where he described nature-deficit-disorder, which might not be a real disorder but it does describe a real problem. Kids are spending more time both inside and in controlled environments.
Outside playtime has been connected to everything from better grades to better sleep (and who doesn’t want their kid to sleep better?), but it fell out of vogue for a while as society began to worry more about test scores and kidnappers.
Luckily, the sort of un-refereed, outdoors horseplay that Louv champions — troll hunts and that sort of nonsense — is making a comeback.
Lake Metroparks’ Penitentiary Glen in Kirtland has a Nature Play area designed to delight children and bedevil adults who need structure in their playtime.
It has logs that can be tipis or fishing poles, a cabin that can be a shelter or a climbing wall, a sand pit, pond, tunnels, hills, groves — and precious few rules.
The last time we visited, my kids found a bunch of pumpkins, so they raced the gourds down the hillside. When they got tired of that, they smashed one of them open so they could see the seeds and white flesh inside.
All of this is permissible — not just permissible, but encouraged — because Nature Play’s philosophy is that children learn more and better from their fun when it’s they who dictate the terms of playtime.
Let’s pause for a moment to acknowledge reality. Depending on your own experience with kids, all this talk about playing outside sounds somewhere between quaint and implausible. After all, if a kid can choose between an iPhone and a tree, there’s no guarantee he’s going to pick the tree.
In situations like that, I use a trick I learned from Lake Metroparks Park Services Director Paul Palagyi: He told me to let the kid take the phone or tablet with them.
“Have them take 10 pictures of plants that they don’t know, and then you can figure out what they are together,” he suggested.
I love that trick because it encourages curiosity. Besides, I don’t hate tech. Deriding smartphones would be like my grandparents complaining that you can’t still rent a rowboat and paddle around the troll bridge at Garfield Park Reservation.
You can’t fight the future. If nature teaches us anything, it’s that our surroundings are always changing. But if we wish, we can guide the future.
And, whenever possible, I like to guide it outside.
Jason Lea has a son, daughter and a full-time job at the Mentor Public Library. He also blogs for Northeast Ohio Parent in his nonexistent free time. You can find this East-sider on Twitter at @jasonmarklea.