Rusty Keeler and Ithaca, NY

Rusty Keeler lives exactly as you might hope – in a beautiful wooden house in the mountains, the walls bright with his amazing wife Annemarie’s quilts and artworks, surrounded by hammocks that just beg for you to recline among the trees and the birdsong and dream of a new more playful utopia.

Rusty, with his counter-part Leon in Portland, designs natural play environments for children.  In fact, he literally wrote the book on it, and it’s an inspiring and invaluable document crammed with gorgeous images and down-to-earth suggestions for how to create places that support children’s physical, spiritual and emotional growth through experiences with nature.  His spaces are inviting, lush, perfect for exploring, talking and dreaming play – and what’s more, he’s a fabulous host, showing me around some of the playgrounds he has designed locally, and a children’s farm.

Below is my favorite image from one of the schools he worked on, showing how children use play to make environments their own.  The boys on the slope are ignoring the slide in favor of digging into dirt with sticks.  We tried to be subtle and I did a little eavesdropping before the boys looked up to see how far away we were.

“It’s the rocket ship,” one said.  There was mumbling, and I heard the words ‘cooking powder’.  Children came from conversation groups at the other end of the playground, sometimes walking past or joining, or pulling someone away from the slope and into another game.  A core group remained, busily digging and lifting handfuls of dirt onto the metal slide and watching it tumble down.

“I’ll be collecting the cooking powder,” the first boy said, “and you just keep getting up the dirt.”

Rusty was so pleased to see the children making the place their own, looking beneath what was there to see what they could find.  The playground as a whole was lovely, with trees and what I can only think to call a big marimba fort.  There were long paths that seemed to curve and embrace subtly demarcated spaces, so that one was encouraged to sit and chat quietly, or to go for independent explorations.

We also looked at a day care centre where the children had carved their own path through the short bushes, studded with white flowers, and I was reminded again how a shrub can seem a wilderness when you’re small enough to hide there.

We talked about some of his priorities for children’s natural spaces – plantings that change with the seasons, that flower or fruit or scent the air, opportunities for sand and water together, places that are sustaining on a soul level and offer music, art and places to be with friends.  We talked about how children need spaces where they can participate directly with the natural world, through digging and planting, foraging and climbing.  Rusty’s playscapes are not galleries for trees, where nature is tamed and only to be looked at.

Rusty is incredibly busy, drawing plans for new playscapes and supporting community build projects, traveling all over to deliver presentations and workshops to spread the word about children, nature and play.  He has worked primarily on designs for spaces for younger children, and we discussed what Adventure Playgrounds and the playwork movement might be able to contribute to the children and nature movement, ways in which older children might be included and encouraged to build their own natural places for and through play.  It made me realize again how botanically sterile so many Adventure Playgrounds can be, with wooden equipment rising out of wood chip, everything brown except for paint.  Some are different, of course, but how many opportunities do children get to explore and develop their own natural spaces, to nurture plants and move piles of earth, to dig in the mud, eat fruit they grew, and peek through a willow hut they wove together?

One place where children of all ages are getting the chance to do just that is the Ithaca Children’s Garden, which I took a disproportionate number of pictures of simply because I’d never seen anything like it.  I had a look at their events calendar and, while it doesn’t seem as child-directed as one might hope, they do have a range of ways in which children can learn and participate in the farm – and the site itself certainly feels playful.

There’s a cob hut there:

A bridge over a marshy stream:

A greenhouse made out of plastic bottles:

Plenty of scrap to build anything new:

Neat rows of willow plant supports:

There were also murals of flowers growing up the building, a large thunder wall, a dome made of apple trees woven together and a woven giant nest.  I want to put in images of everything, of course, but instead will just progress to the one of Rusty, tired after our day of sightseeing and communing with the Farm’s giant turtle, Gaia.

It was a spectacular trip and gave me lots to think on, especially about the different ways in which children can experience nature – and the different meanings we give to that word.

There is no reason why ‘nature’ has to be pristine, and it’s a little bizarre that we think it ought to be.  Children need wild places, places where they can drag up grass or gather flowers and leaves for potions and crowns, places where they can dig and slap together mud pies, pull up worms and frighten one another, laughing at the squeals they elicit.  As adults we have a set of opportunities to improve our children’s chances to do just that, but this shouldn’t have to mean driving them to a National Park that’s hours away.  It can be a well-thought out play garden, some hedges for them to bend into den spaces, a trickling stream.  It can be somewhere close enough that they can know it intimately, understand its ways, inhabitants and seasons.  It can be wild enough that they can be wild there too, and make it their own through imagination and effort.

Ithaca is a place rich with lakes, bright open spaces – and yes, gorges.  But with thought, care and ingenuity, places for children to experience growing things can be made anywhere.  Their worlds, and those of the adults who live with them, will be improved immeasurably because of it.

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