March 24, 2018
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Learning to love the land

By David Sobel, Special to the BDN

Walking the driftwood-laced shores of Swan’s Island one fall not long ago, I was heartened to find a number of ramshackle constructions in different coves. “Kid’s Fort! No adults allowed!” prohibited one of the hand-lettered signs.

The forts were woven into the spruce blow-down at the edge of the shore; others were crouched between the top of the beach cobble and the steep blackberried bank. Planks, lobster pots, buoys, scrap metal, broken ladders and discarded tarps were woven together to create bedrooms, lookouts, kitchens, storage cabinets. It was clear that deep, unadulterated play was alive in these salty edges beyond the purview of parents. A reflexive smile came to my face each time I stumbled upon a new one.

And yet I’ve heard that some land trusts have forbidden the construction of kids’ forts on some of their coastal preserves because they pose a health hazard to the children who might be playing in them. (As if the danger of a loose board falling on someone’s head is graver than the danger of driving a kid to school in the morning — one of the most dangerous things a child does every day.)

Instead, if local land trusts and environmental organizations truly are interested in developing a new generation of land stewards committed to the preservation of the natural resources of our coastal communities, they might actually want to encourage fort construction.

What’s the connection between forts and land protection?

A recent study on the relationship between childhood experiences and adult environmental behavior by environmental psychologist Nancy Wells and research associate Kristi Leckies, both from Cornell University, hints at the connection: “Childhood participation in ‘wild’ nature, such as hiking or playing in the woods, camping, and hunting or fishing … is positively associated with environmental behaviors in adulthood.” In other words, children who have extensive opportunities to play in natural settings appear to be more likely to grow up to behave in an environmentally responsible fashion.

A study of Iowa farmers had similar findings. My own research on children’s constructions suggests that building and playing in a fort is one significant way that children bond with the natural world. The fort is the “home away from home,” the opportunity to feel comfortable out in nature, away from the protected and known world of house and family.

If we want children to love the land and — from a land trust perspective — want to protect it for generations to come, then our challenge is to find ways to have them become one with it. The idea of “taking only pictures, leaving only footprints” is an ethic we should mature into.

In childhood, children should collect blueberries, get muddy, learn to clam and collect mussels (during months with R’s), make secret trails, build fairy houses, raise salamanders from eggs, climb trees, and hunt deer. And they should do all those things on land trust properties, because once the land gets under their fingernails and inside their stomachs, they will love and respect it and want to save it.

Peter Forbes, a farmer and conservationist who is co-founder and co-director of Vermont’s Center for Whole Communities, suggests that land preservationists put too much emphasis on just saving places. He holds that our “relationship to place is as important as the place itself.”

We can’t just save land and lock it up; we’ve got to figure out how to build relationships between the people of the community and those preserved places. And the way to build that relationship for children is to encourage them to play on the land.

So I’m all for parents teaching children to hunt and make fairy houses and play capture the flag on the preserved wild places at the edges of Maine communities. If we encourage children’s relationships with the land through curriculum-based field trips and through hiding in the roots of a toppled spruce, then a new generation of land stewards will grow in Maine’s rocky soil.

David Sobel is the director of teacher certification programs at Antioch University and author of “Wild Play” and other books on the educational importance of connecting children to the outdoors. He will be speaking at the College of the Atlantic’s McCormick Lecture Hall at 4 p.m. Monday, April 25. His talk is titled “Making School More Like a Farmers Market.” He also is offering a workshop for local educators at 4 p.m.Tuesday, April 26, “Mapmaking With Children.” To register, email Judith Cox at

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