Dr. William Bird, the health adviser to Natural England (a British organization dedicated to conserving and enhancing the natural environment), said in a recent Daily Mail article that children are healthier and better adjusted if they spend time in the countryside or parks. “Studies have shown that people deprived of contact with nature were at greater risk of depression and anxiety. Children are getting less and less unsupervised time in the natural environment. They need time playing in the countryside, in parks and in gardens where they can explore, dig up the ground and build dens.” (The italics in the quote are mine.)
Enter our beloved area of Riverside Park, which as I’ve mentioned here in the past is fairly unkempt, with tall grasses and bushes, granite outcroppings, a low area that fills with water when we’ve had a lot of rain, a grassy hill with trees that form a sort of natural house or ‘den’ and even a tree with low hanging branches that the kids can sit in. Not to mention the two red tailed hawks that routinely patrol the area from their nest atop a nearby building.
In other words, it’s heaven.
Last fall after a massive rainstorm, Maya, Ben and about 6 other kids spent an afternoon dragging big limbs that had blown down in the storm and had not yet been retrieved by the parks department, across the shallow ‘lake’ that had formed at the bottom of the hill, and then attempted to walk across it without falling in. (The water was just over ankle deep.) There were a lot of muddy shoes and wet socks that afternoon, and even more smiles and laughter.
For several years this area of Riverside Park was the site of a regular Wednesday afternoon gathering with other homeschoolers. The girls would make up elaborate ‘pretend’ scenarios that would carry on for weeks and involved complicated plot lines. Sometimes they played “The Hunger Games” with the park doubling as ‘the arena’. The boys would be off playing ninjas or Star Wars or something equally death defying, periodically ‘spying’ on the girls or running raids on their woodland house. Favorite sticks would be hidden to see if they’d still be in place the following week. Last Spring we got a close up look at a young bat who’d decided to make his daily rest in the limb of a rather large bush he had apparently mistaken for a tree.
In other words, it is a place of which Dr. Bird would approve. It is one of the only places I can think of in parks in the city where the kids can muck around, pretty much on their own.
Alas, this summer the decision was made – for reasons which all sound very, well, reasonable – to permanently move the Wednesday gathering to a playground just inside Central Park. A playground that is completely enclosed with no easy access to great rocks or wild spots. Central Park being much more visited than Riverside, it’s main entry areas are well-groomed and well-traveled. Hard to imagine playing The Hunger Games there, for instance. The playground is fine, as playgrounds go, but my kids are mourning the loss of their time at Riverside with their friends. They can’t come to terms with the decision to play endless hours of tag (which is the game of choice at the new space) in an enclosed and structured space over the endless imaginative game possibilities in a wild, wooded place.
As a response to this loss, we are attempting to entice friends to come out to Riverside Park on Monday afternoons in addition to the Wednesday gathering. So far there have been few takers. Most families are too busy to commit to two afternoons spent playing outside with friends, and the Wednesday group is much more established. That said, we did spend time there yesterday with a couple of friends, and though there weren’t enough kids for an intricate game of pretend, Ben and his helper J.J. did manage to build a mini-bridge.
Small bridge. Small steps to regaining our magical hours in Riverside.