Play and Plants

When I was six I left home with my teddy Billy Big Ears and a jar of peanut butter to live under a hedge where I had made a new home just big enough for me (note home not den).  We lived a couple of miles out of the urban conurbation of Wigan. My nan lived in Wigan in the house where I was born which was across the road from the ‘spare ground’, our huge playground, which was actually some rough disused land, where I remember pink fluffy flowers in the summer.

I now know the flowers were a type Rosebay and having recently re-visited the land, which is now a car park, it was about 3m by 5m big (or small). Wigan is home to one of the last bastions of herbal remedies, Potters and the Victorian remedy Uncle Joe’s Mint Balls for coughs. My great grand mother didn’t believe in doctors preferring the plants for medicines and during the war my mum was fed dandelion leaves instead of salad. I brought up my daughter on my own, 13 years on state benefits and took her foraging in local parks and in the countryside from her being in a buggy. Her favourite story growing up was about me getting stung on the bum by some nettles while having a pee outdoors one day.

I want to try and make the links between plant knowledge and respect for their properties, access to land and links to our consumption of products from it, health and inequalities and to see these points from a child’s eye. So I’ll just lay out my thoughts and see if they make sense.

Mini houseChildren know how to play, we don’t need to show them if fact they need to show us. When we play we are giving our imagination some space. Free play is purely imagination and of course we know from Einstein, among other things, that this is in fact more important that knowledge alone. Through play knowledge is flexed and becomes embedded. Free play allows for chance occurrences, random actions and the impacts of this observed. For some children it is only through this type of play they might escape from the grown up reality they find themselves and start to try and make sense of what is going on. Selwyn Guilbaud ( writing as a parent of young children in the wonderful iPDIP (as in dash!)  about a trip to the beach which turned into an adventure says ‘erring not on the side of caution I suggested we take off our shoes and just get our trousers wet’. As parents we can do this with our children if we are brave.

Research has shown ‘happiness depends on taking chance’ (de Lange, New Scientist, pp47-49,25.8.12 Issue 47). A surprisingly profound conflict of the human psyche is that while we want to understand the world, by understanding it we rob ourselves of of the pleasure of the unexpected.

Children are nearer to the ground. They therefore see it much better and can observe what happens there much more closely than adults. A 1m square patch is the minimum space for play but is a big enough space to have a shelter, play a game or observe the natural world at it’s business over time. (see @BeeStrawbridge and

This closeness to the ground might help us appreciate the world from a plant point of view. Remember that plants sense the world around them far more acutely than we do. They ‘see’ with light receptors, ‘feel’ by sensing the wind and heat and even us passing through, message each other via airborne pheromones similar to smells, have defence responses which can ‘taste’on both their leaves and roots just like our tongues do and while they cannot hear music the minute sound vibrations of a bee buzzing or an aphids wing beat affect plants to such an extent sound waves are now being used to promote growth in crop experiments (Charmovitz, New Scientist pp35-37 was a long train journey!)

All this still seems a bit disjointed until we consider the larger profile linkages. We are of the earth, have bodies identical to that of the original humans and therefore still respond the way we have for millenia despite our attempts to believe otherwise. We care about now, today, what’s around us and our kith and kin so how on earth are we to save this planet for the next generation and what on earth (!) has this got to do with child’s play. Apparently if we can care for the immediate environment and make our neighbourhood a better place to live, (Griskevicius,. New Scientist, pp26-27, 15.9.12) via for example making it safe enough for children to play and green enough for us to feed ourselves, as a species we are more capable of making our lifestyles more sustainable, look to helping future generations instead of our current short termism and generally move society to one that is linked to our deep evolutionary roots. Finding a mate and improving our personal status are both outcomes of research which also finds that invoking social norms works better than having rules and regulations telling us what we cannot do or how bad we all are. See Selwyn’s article again on this where he quotes Bateson ‘We try to prohibit certain encroachments, but it might be more effective to encourage people to know their freedoms and flexibilities and use them more often’. Sounds like free play in the natural world if you ask me!

Many of us are tired all the time with low energy and low mood. People on low incomes eat less raw fruit and vegetables because they are expensive in the shops. Lots of people, children and adults are tired all the time. Many seem to have poor immune systems with one cold after another. Yet we will all do what we can to give our children the best start in life.

Nature artCould these conditions relate to lack of sunshine in the winter, lack of raw fruit and vegetables and fresh air? Here’s an idea, go and pick dandelion, dock, nettle and goosegrass (sticky bobs or cleavers) , early shoots as they appear in your nearest bit of nature. Make sure the plants are young and not near roads and even if you can only find one of them bring it back and make into tea or soup. This is spring tonic and I can send you more details if you need it. The process and the product will do the trick! Join us at our Plant Craft sessions in Penryn this spring for this and more. Just make contact for more details.

My girl and I had a few memorable adventures while she was growing up and this weekend again became the Mistress of the Treasure Hunt for 29th birthday! It is an easy and inexpensive gift!

There is an inequivocle  link from all these points and health inequalities. This has been recognized by the Marmot Review and the front cover says it all.

It is of a young child outside with grown ups she can trust (spot prize for the first person to tell us what type of plant they are walking on, Latin name and what it’s uses are or have been). This document is about making linkages to help sustain and maintain healthy growing bodies from the outset. This is called early intervention and prevention and this approach starts in the home by individual families and in the public sphere by providing and helping to provide spaces children can play in freely. The report specifically sets out policy objectives including ‘Improving the availability of good quality open and green spaces across the social gradient’

Now public health is being managed by the local authorities who already manage parks we may have the chance to see some joined up thinking. Especially if we use our rights as concerned individuals to get involved with the new Healthwatch committees. These agencies will need to represent the needs and voice of children and young people so we, our children and young people can start to influence change. There will be national systems for feedback and research from children and young people to be uploaded and shared. If like me you have seen all this before, get your wellies on, we’re going to go through all that mud again! This time we have play, land, health and sustainability all on the same agenda which I think is a bit different.

Some ideas for things to do with or without children. You might be able to do them all depending on where you live but no matter where you live you should be able to do some:

  • Make spring tonic (see previous blog or Facebook entry)
  • If you find disused or derelict land, you can challenge your local authority to change it’s use to a growing and play space. (Alys Fowler, the Guardian suggests this and if you are going to have a go PLEASE let us know, land rights for children is a favourite of ours))
  • Go out walking in the dark and look at the stars
  • Get up just before sunrise and listen to the birds.
  • Jump and splash in the biggest puddles you can find – near to home is best for quick drying or take a change of clothes.
  • Take a bin liner each or something to lie on and between rain showers go and lie down and look at the shapes in the clouds and see if you can make up a story.
  • Take a map and go for a walk and purposefully take every turning you have never taken, maybe taking it in turns to decide which direction you take and only look at the map when you are well and truly lost. If you don’t have a map and you are in an urban area when you are lost ask for directions from a friendly looking stranger. Or try the GetLostBot app.
  • Make a magic nature detector (a coloured paper plate or similar) throw it on a piece of land (playground for example) and see what you have found. Look at each different type of plant, see if there are an insects, maybe under a stick or a stone, and have a little dig and see what the soil is like or if there are any worms. Talk about what you have found and imagine a day in the life of your favourite bit.

Sign up to receive Nature Workshops’ blogs and we will send you more ideas on our illustrated activity sheet.

Jane Acton is Ethnobotanist at Nature Workshops, a social enterprise running workshops in the natural world of fun, well being and learning.


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