Autumn, Camping, Creeks, Hiking, Woods

Camping with Friends – Unstructured Time in Wilderness

10.17.09 | 4 Comments


At our first parents circle meeting this year we were asked to describe our most vivid childhood memory.  98% of my fellow parents described an activity that took place outdoors, and without parent supervision.  We all agree that times have changed since we were kids.  But boy times have changed since Daniel Beard’s era.  In The American Boy’s Handy Book there is not a single a mention of parents.  In  the scenarios  Beard envisions, boys are presumed unsupervised and are expected to fend for themselves.  They were to  find/buy their own materials for projects, prepare their own meals, and even camp overnight in wilderness unchaperoned.

Last weekend we found an easy way to simulate some of that independence for young children without completely compromising modern day parent supervision standards.  Our school encourages people to camp frequently at destinations not far from home.  We accompanied many other families to Portola Redwoods State Park for the annual Fall Camping Trip.  What happened on this trip that was so remarkable you ask?  Well my son politely and blissfully ignored me.   I had about 10 minutes of interaction with Seth a day.  5 minutes upon waking at dawn, and 5 minutes right before bed.  The rest of the time he was off with his peers who were not with their parents either.  Some how, a huge gaggle of kids ages 3 – 10 managed to get along beautifuly, entertain themselves, teach others and learn, all without any parent intervention.


You might think that children unsupervised would result in a “Lord of the Flies” scenario, but in fact we witnessed quite the opposite.  The kids, some of whom had never met before aquainted themselves in the campsite.  By the time we got down the trail to the creek they were old friends.  They all knew each other’s names, and got to work in the creek right away.  In the photos above the kids are working as a team to harvest charcoal from a burned out Redwood trunk.  They have brought it to the creek side, and are adding water to make black paint in their industrious factory.  The team work displayed in this endeavor was nothing short of miraculous.  A true testament to the innate collaborative nature of children when left to their own devices in a wilderness setting.


One of the other parents remarked, “If it was just our family on this camping trip I would be the entertainment.  The kids would come to me saying they were bored and ask me what they should do.”  I think what he said resonates with most parents.  Our children are too dependent on us for structure.  In Daniel Beard’s day there would have been school for most youngsters, but the rest of the time they could help with chores, or they could head out to be a person in the world.

Richard Louv and other proponents of the “children in nature movement” espouse that in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century children would have played in wilderness areas far more that children today ever do.  The theory being that natural settings are calm places without “human structure” where children can tap into their primal play roots.  The young brain is designed to practice becoming a human in non-built environments.  Environments that are shaped by natural tree lines, open sky, rocky canyons, flowing streams are all felt to be the type of stimuli that foster unstructured play, an essential part of healthy child development.  I for one witnessed collaboration, creativity, problem solving, community and the utmost positive attitude when we let our children “fend for themselves” last weekend.  You can easily try this close to home on a camping trip with other families, or if you already live in a rural area you could have a play date to just go to the creek.  Hang back and let the kids to the work, they seem to know exactly what to do, your job as a parent is to give them the chance.


Here are a few helpful links/reading material if you are wary of this idea and need to be nudged toward nature 🙂

Children in Nature Collaborative San Francisco Bay Area

Children & Nature Network US Nation Wide

“Last Child in the Woods” by Richard Louv

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