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Lessons from the Woods of Maine

John H Suitor III
The picture shown here provides a glimpse into a playground in Northern Wales called The Land. Does it look familiar to you? I can’t remember seeing another like it today, but I do recall a similar one from when I was a child.
I grew up on a lake in the woods in rural Maine. Our house was about a mile off the nearest road, and frequently I had to walk that entire distance to get to and from the school bus. Sometimes I rode my bike to school about three miles away.  We burned twelve cords of wood to heat our house in the winter (wood was our only source of heat – no oil or gas backup), and we only plowed the very top of the driveway during wintertime. Turns out that 4-wheel drive was not as common back then.
Rural living taught me to entertain myself (TV was sketchy at best, and cable and satellite hadn’t yet crossed the Maine state line), to be a jack of all trades (we used to work on our snowmobile in the living room near the woodstove), to understand the value of hard work (we dedicated one weekend in October to stacking wood), and to be grateful for things like the thermostat that I have on the wall of my house in Boulder. I couldn’t have grown up in a better place.

Last week I read an article by Hannah Rosin in The Atlantic titled, “The Overprotected Kid.” (Check out the Pink Floyd reference in the URL.) It was fascinating and I highly recommend it to you. Ms. Rosin writes about our “preoccupation with safety [that] has stripped childhood of independence, risk taking, and discovery – without making it safer.” She cites multiple studies that suggest our “safer” children are more dependent, have more difficulty assessing risk, and are less creative than we were at their ages. She points to The Land, the playground pictured above, as one remedy for this problem. There, kids play with fire, jump on old mattresses, hang out in rusted containers, and roll in piles of tires. They are supervised – loosely – but they are developing the skills that safer environments rob them of the chance of developing.

After reading the article I began to reflect on my childhood, and I now wonder if I am depriving my own children of a critical piece of their education. We live in a Gunbarrel neighborhood with a fancy (and I am sure safe) play structure in a park right around the corner, but we don’t let Madi and Catherine go to the park by themselves. Sometimes our whole family rides our bikes to school, but we don’t let our children ride their bikes to school alone. We wince when we ask our 14 year-old to walk the dog around the block and we make sure she has her cell phone.
It’s not like I was raised in a “Lord of the Flies” kind of environment. My parents loved me, looked out for me, and, generally, knew what I was up to. But, they didn’t insist on the closeness that I insist on as I try to parent my own children. I could ride my bike to a friend’s house, cross country ski for hours in the woods, or even plow a hockey rink on the lake when it froze (usually by December 10th every year). On Wednesday nights I square danced with a local club. The neighbors would pick me up at 6:00pm and would drop me off at the top of my driveway at about 8:00pm. It was a long walk down to the house…in the dark…through the woods…without a flashlight. And I didn’t even have a cell phone to check in!
My dad always called those kind of experiences “character builders,” and my brother and I still laugh at the characters those experiences built. The thing is, I think my dad might have been right. I’m not so sure he and my mom knew or understood the research that Ms. Rosin quotes in her article, but they knew something intuitively that I struggle with today.

So, I have made a promise to let my children experience more independence, risk-taking and discovery. I am going to plan those experiences with intention, and I’ll check in with Madi and Catherine afterwards to see how the experiences felt to them. I am not so sure I am ready to send them to The Land, but I am sure I want them to feel that same sense of confidence and accomplishment that I felt when I was a kid. I also want to help instill that MacGyver-ish, “can-do” attitude that I learned growing up in rural Maine.

What do you think? Want to join me?

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Boulder Country Day School, where academic distinction meets education with character. BCD is a top rated, accredited private school in Boulder, Colorado where every child has the opportunity to discover his or her own unique excellence. Distinguished by small class sizes, outstanding faculty, engaging academics and a focus on community, our preschool, elementary and IB middle school teachers strive to create a well-rounded educational environment that balances traditional subjects with the arts, world languages, athletics and project-based learning.

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