The day has finally come and the jeep is packed full of camping equipment, tools, paint, jars, glue and coloured card. The weather is looking fine, however the phone has been ringing from the crack of dawn with people enquiring if the weekend is still happening. The forecast for Kent has changed to rain! Why this weekend of all weekends? The last Family Weekend was fantastic and people left Nature’s Playground on a high, buzzing from their experience of going back to basics and nature. Mel, one of the first-time campers, said to me before she left, “We’ve had an amazing time, the kids have loved it and I’m going to tell everyone about it this place”, and sure enough that’s what she did. We are expecting five new families, including nine children aged between 4 and 12, besides our regular happy campers. The activities have been planned: arts and crafts, movies, games, clay oven making, and music to keep everyone entertained. There is no way the rain is going to put a dampener on the weekend!
By 3pm people start to arrive and the weather isn’t looking good. It’s a joy to see the children’s reactions to the totally new environment, seeing them slowly get over the fear of being in a strange and unfamiliar space, and finally realising the endless amounts of play opportunities they have at their disposal. What is most magical is that all the play comes from the natural and un-manufactured things around them. I stand back to watch them, a scene naturally framed by the tree trunks.
Day dreaming over: if the weekend is to be a success then people have to be comfortable. It’s time to get the tents up under the canopy of the trees, just in case the rain decides to make an appearance after all. The adults get to it, and the children go exploring, running in between the trees and the log cabin, sticks in hand, taking on characters and new-found identities. As tents go up one by one, a new game starts - the firewood hunt. It’s the most simple but satisfying way to get the children working together, collecting wood to keep warm and cook the evening meal of fish, rice burgers, corn on the cob and salad.
As everyone starts to wind down, the fire becomes the new attraction for the children, and as the light slowly slips away some adults go to collect more wood with the children. Others stay behind, fascinated by the fire and, as one child describes it, “the fire’s spirits flying up into the sky.” All the children have their sticks, poking the fire to generate more spirits. Then some realise that if they leave their sticks in the fire long enough, the tip goes red and sometimes produces a flame.
“I did it, I did it - my stick has the fire!”
I sit back and watch as the elemental play scene I have been joyfully observing starts to break down. Just as the children start to get more familiar with their surroundings and feel more confident around the fire, adults start to become anxious and fearful of the unknown.
“You’re too close to the fire.”
“Put the stick down. It’s hot, you know”
That space that the children had just been able to be in, that freedom they so much enjoyed earlier, is fading away.
How can I bring that scene back? Hmmm … marshmallows, and music for the adults. As my colleague plays music in the log cabin, I sit at the fire with all the children peacefully toasting marshmallows. I look around and the scene is out of this world - a back drop of trees, music as if it’s blowing through the air, a circle of children sitting peacefully and quietly, concentrating on the fire and me. Peace. My concentration is broken as a small boy to the right of me, Tye, pulls the arm of my jumper and says, “I like this place.”
What else could I say but, “I do too.”
Sunday is here and the children rise, asking if the fire kept burning all night. Some even ask where their stick is. Most of the adults concentrate on cooking breakfast. The sun is out and the children go off to the castle and the zip wire, with one child who knows her way around taking pride in telling everyone, “I know how to get there”. She beams with confidence, especially proud as the adults don’t know.
Breakfast, zip wire and castle out of their system, the children and adults make their way down the path from the log cabin to the open campsite area. As they walk through, pots of glue, paint, glitter and other creative materials have been laid out for them to use and expand their play. Some make clothes for their dolls, others paint their sticks that they have been playing with and others create their own picture frames and abstract paintings. The possibilities for creativity are endless as children and adults become engrossed in their own creativity in a way that might never have happened if the rain had stopped this Family Weekend.
At 5 pm the families have all packed up and eaten lunch. The children have packed up all their mementos from the forest and are doing everything in their power to slow the leaving process down. They hang out and climb in the big cargo net. The Nature’s Playground Family Weekend is coming to an end. All have rediscovered the playfulness that the big city and the fast pace of life often stifle. Adults and children both say how much they have enjoyed themselves and that they can’t wait to come back.
What amazes me is how all the images I have experienced this weekend demonstrate what an impact a change of environment and some freedom can make on children’s confidence and creativity.