I was trying to explain, to a confused health visitor, why exactly I had erected the top section of a child’s climbing frame in my living room. It largely ruled out sitting down on the chairs, taking up most of the available space. Peta, who had barely mastered walking, teetered dangerously at the top, while Joe, almost three years her senior, sat glowering at the metal octopus legs from as far a distance as he could manage in the cramped space.
Joe went to a preschool three mornings a week. They were incredibly supportive of him as we waited for the outcome of assessments which would culminate in Joe’s diagnosis of ‘autistic spectrum condition’. One of preschool’s targets at the time was to help Joe access the outdoor play equipment in their yard. Joe was struggling. I knew that he found it easier to adjust to things in a familiar environment; hence the reason for the climbing frame in the living room. I was still trying to convince my visitor – “If I’d put the climbing frame straight into the garden, Joe would just refuse to go out.” Taking him to the local park was not an option either as it consisted of a plastic tree with a face that held swings and a slide; Joe would not go within 200 metres of that grimacing monster, ruling out not only a trip to the park, but a number of local walks too.
The climbing frame in the living room seemed quite logical to me, and the plan did work. Joe made it to the top of the climbing frame indoors and then outdoors, though he was never a great fan of it. He managed to access the preschool outdoor equipment for a time too, though progress was again halted over the summer term when the local college came and built a beautiful play castle in the yard. In fear of the new castle, Joe would not even put a foot out of the back door of preschool and I was back to the drawing board, starting with a friend’s toy castle into which Joe could put his small soft toys, and ending with a visit to a local ruined castle. But that’s another story.
The thing was, throughout all of this, there was a part of me that was unconcerned about Joe’s lack of enthusiasm for play equipment. I knew that if you put Joe into a natural environment, plunged him into nature, he was a different child. He would climb trees, swing on ropes, balance on logs (assuming there were no roots involved), and spend time just looking at nature. Of course, it was good that Joe did use play equipment as it helped him to learn about taking turns and interacting with other children, but in terms of physical agility, I knew he had the ability in the right setting.
I saw this pattern over and over again. Joe won’t have his school photo taken? Move the camera outside. Joe won’t take part in messy play? Put him in the mud – then you’ll see mess. Joe won’t calm down? Take him into the playground. As Joe becomes older, the situations that challenge him change, but the one thing that remains constant is the calming presence of nature, of the outdoors. And although, for Joe, the benefits of the outdoors can’t help but hit you in the face, the subtle benefits for everyone else in the family are there too. We all need the outdoors. It was a major factor in our decision to take the risk of buying a wood, and despite the pressures we took on in making this choice, it still feels like the right one. I don’t think I was wrong either, to go to all the trouble of putting up a climbing frame in the living room, or spending a large chunk of the summer holidays showing Joe how much fun castles can be, but I do think I was right not to place too much importance the outcome. More than ten years on, Joe still doesn’t go a bundle on outdoor equipment, even that designed for adults. But this summer has seen him using all the skills that would be required on a man-made assault course and what’s more, enjoying using them, because he is doing it on his own terms and in an environment that is more comfortable to him. Seeing him high up a tree reading, or whittling his little wooden owls, makes me glad. Watching how all the children slow down and fit into their woodland environment is rewarding; I am proud to see it. I am reminded again of the wonderful gifts nature offers us, reminded how important it is to make time in my family’s life for these gifts to be enjoyed – reminded how important it is to make the time for nature to work its magic…