I don’t know why it took me this long to write this story. It’s been the underlying current of my entire life.
We don’t need to go into psychological reasons why this might be, though my own mind offers a few quite quickly. Nevertheless, let me get to my point.
I think it’s good for kids to play with water. Particularly, I think small streams are where it’s at. There’s not much to learn about at a lake, frankly. About animals, yes. Oh, yes. But there’s not much to learn about the lake itself. About the water.
Get that water moving, though, and there’s plenty to learn. Dam it up and watch the water build up. Or destroy the dams nature or others before you have made, and see how you’ve freed the water to flow. In his book Last Child In The Woods, which I’ve reviewed elsewhere on this site, Richard Louv tells us that one of the great things about nature is that unlike the limited applications of a coloring book or a dress-up princess outfit, there are endless “loose pieces” for a kid’s imagination to work with.
It is in that way that it sounds so simple to describe in words ‘a kid playing in a stream’, but if you think about your own experiences in this way, you’ll remember that though simple the variables are somehow also endless.
But back to the title. When we take our kids to the stream and show them how to manipulate the water, are we setting a bad example? Are we showing them an environmental ethic of tampering with nature? Just what sort of damage IS done by letting them play in this way.
Let me answer this with another Louv reference and my own experience as a parent. In the book, Louv discusses this idea in relation to treehouses. The treehouse does do some amount of damage to the tree, but isn’t the trade-off worth it, for a kid to carry that experience for their lifetime, of being so close to a tree?
In my own experience this comes up when we visit the beach. My daughter is not the gentlest child when it comes to interacting with the hermit crabs I find for her in the tidepools. She throws them around, she buries them—not maliciously, you understand, or out of violent urges, but out of excitement. I believe that the important thing is that she is interacting so closely with nature. Do I cringe a little? Sure. But even if worse comes to worse, and a few hermit crabs die by her hands, isn’t that a worthwhile trade off—not for me, but for the hermit crabs as a species—if it leaves her intimately familiar with seashore fauna for the rest of her days?
So let ‘em play, says I. Let them learn that their actions have consequences. Let them feel some control over natural forces that may seem small to you and I, but may in fact seem like a force of nature to them. Which they are. You know what I mean!
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comment section below.