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Ithaca’s Young Explorers: Learning and Growing in the Hands-On Nature Anarchy Zone

Written by Kelsey Brewster, ICG’s Nature Preschool Lead

Four kids climb atop a structure made from wood, repurposed wire spools, and ladders, in Ithaca Children's Garden's Hands-On Nature Anarchy Zone.

In the Hands-On Nature Anarchy Zone (HONAZ), a space for child-led discovery and creation, twelve children, ages 3 to 5, and part of ICG’s Playful Nature Explorers program, enjoy a late spring morning playing and exploring with friends. Two adults, Playful Nature Explorers (PNE) guides, watch and document the play, but give them a lot of space to encourage independence.

Today, within HONAZ stands a structure close to the willow trees, crafted from slabs of wood, wire spools, tubes, and a sturdy ladder. The afternoon before, participants from After School @ ICG created this obstacle course–it remains a testament to their creativity and now, for three PNE kids, presents a unique opportunity. When the kids come upon the creation, their determination to find out its purpose is palpable. A PNE guide follows the group and is just close enough to hear but not to intervene.

A three-year-old boy takes a shaky step onto the slab of wood. The wood is stable at first, but then he notices the three smaller blocks lying across the top. The highest point is the most wobbly. His friend stands up there, already having mastered the physical challenge. She encourages him, saying, “You can do it!” and also takes the typical adult words by adding “Be careful!” Emboldened by her encouragement, he starts shakily across with some nervous cries but never indicates a need for an adult’s intervention. 

The girl at the top has already surpassed this physical challenge, but what about the peer challenge ahead?

 A third child stands at the top of the ladder ready to climb up and try the bridge in the opposite direction. The child who had mastered the bridge now realizes someone is blocking her way. There are no established rules here; there is no “right” way of using this structure. Instead, a battle of wills occurs. The girl on the bridge insists that the child needs to get off. The child on the ladder says “no” without any other explanation except pure conviction in her choice. The girl’s second plan of action is to insist louder, and the kid on the ladder? She catches an adult’s eye.

This time, the adult does step in to offer support. She offers the most obvious solutions but receives resistance. She tries: Is there another way to get down? The adult steps back and the kid waiting for the ladder says “Oh. Yeah!” She jumps off the top of the structure and lands, a little scuffed but with zero complaints. The kid on the ladder climbs down when the conflict is no longer there. 

A simple moment in a child’s day is supported by adults trusting that children are capable and giving them the space to experience nature through play. Those five minutes on the structure involved negotiationperseverance, and resilience. All of the kids in that space are growing into their unique person and gaining skills that will serve them well. Nobody can say if these skills will make them more capable adults, but just by observation, it can be said that kids are finding success and these moments will become memories that add to who they are.

Ithaca Children’s Garden’s mission involves allowing children to take risks and to form authentic connections with nature and each other. Every day, educators witness children build up resilience, persevere through created challenges, and work with and alongside peers. Programs like Playful Nature Explorers rely on donations from individuals who support nature play and are committed to fostering a more resilient and just world.

Learn More

More on risky play and trusting the body:

How uninterrupted play benefits children and the future adults they become:

Mentioned ICG Programs:

Playful Nature Explorers: ICG’s Playful Nature Explorers is for children ages 2.5 to 5. Our research-based preschool program follows the rhythm of the seasons, the interest of the children, and centers play each and every day. Playful Nature staff are experts in early child development and know how to support the child as an individual and foster the community of young learners as a whole. Children build social and emotional skills, confidence, resiliency, and develop a positive relationship with the natural world. Read more here.

After School @ ICG: After a long day at school, an afternoon of nature play and hands-on exploration is just what your child needs. After School @ ICG helps students K-5th grade build a relationship with the natural world and develop critical cognitive, social, and physical skills. Read more here.