One of my favorite play memories comes from a very early age and I am not even sure if it is an imagined play memory! We had a hill behind an apartment building in Germany where we lived. This hill led to a forest. I remember the hill as very steep and it landed at a dirt road that cut through a dense and forbidding forest. The top of the hill was the farthest we were supposed to go which of course meant that whatever was beyond it was very much the place we did go. As much as possible.
Because it was forbidden and mysterious, it was very attractive and immediately had story attached to it. So naturally there were wild boars there. Those were what you had to watch out for and every sound along that overgrown road was a herd of stampeding wild boars. Run!
As early childhood educators, we are challenged to remember our own play experiences and to consider what role the adults played in either hindering or supporting our play. In this careful consideration, we are able to change or adjust our practice because it is that very act of child’s play that informs thinking, outlook, and the way we would exist and interact with the world and our peers.
As advocates for play we hold the line. We know that this kind of play is being lost each day. Our children will not have the same opportunity for unscheduled and free play or full immersion in the natural world like we did.
Or will they?
We always wonder and work hard to hold the line and then last week, I met Zilvinas Karpis founder of Lithuania’s first outdoor school. He holds fast to a dream of ensuring that his children and others will have access to the kind of play that shaped generation after generation of creative thinkers. Of course many of us dream of this, but it his conviction that dreaming it will make it happen.
And of course it is a bit more complicated than just dreaming. He approached his dream’s manifestation in a methodical manner. First, he trusted that it would happen and the set about making it happen. He jumped, trusting that the Earth would catch him. Zilvinas shared that he made the decision and then took steps to make the dream come true. It is not every day that we are able to see passion manifest into something real.
He searched for green spaces, spaces that were no longer used for purpose and then he approached the landowners and caretakers of these properties and shared his dream with them. He backed it up with actual plans and vision. How could they resist? Each person who comes in contact with this dream and this dream maker, understands the dream’s importance and relevance in children’s lives and is compelled to join him in his quest.
The hurdles and limitations could be overcome and planned around. He knew that with a few simple ingredients like time and space, shelter, trees, and water, the rest would simply fall into place. Toileting, hand washing, napping (oh you should see the children nestled sleeping in tents!) — all of these became solvable problems. And what do we have now?
We visited three locations of Laukos Darželis. Each site was more stunning than the last. The children were truly immersed in their natural settings. Each site included sheltering trees, water, sand and rich loam of the forest floor. The teachers were attentive and tuned in, but also understood that this was the children’s opportunity to explore and experience the world around them.
This is because Zilvinas did not end his work with finding the school sites and the staff, he arranged for training with Juliet Robertson and others to make sure the teachers had everything they needed in regards to professional development. He also arranged for a team of educators (luckily including myself) to join the teaching team in observation, learning, and sharing.
During our visit the Mayor of Vilnius, Remigijus Šimašius and his staff were invited as well and what a joy it was to hear directly from a politician that he understood the value of this approach and this essential return to nature!
I hope to write several pieces about our visit to Lithuania and Lauko darželis, but for now it is so important to start the story with its founder. Without this commitment to making the dream come true, the rest of the story would be just that, a dream.
To read more about Juliet Robertson’s trip to Lithuania visit her Creative STAR Learning Company blog, <click here>
You can also read Kierna Corr’s posts about our visit <click here>. We worked as a team to learn and share with Zilvinas and his staff. Other team members included Martin Besford of Highway Farm Activity Centre in England and Unnur Henrys who teaches and leads the outdoor initiatives at her school, Leikskólinn Stekkjarás, in Iceland.