Mapping the Wild

map the wild

This article first appeared on the Play and Playground News Center 10-14-13 at

Let’s be frank. Today’s kids face two situations that are unprecedented in human history. First, for the most part their movement and activities are highly constrained. We know that the distance they can travel unsupervised away from their homes has been reduced from miles to feet. We also know that the amount of time they spend in self-directed play has diminished from hours to minutes.

On the other side of this is the trend in “modern” playgrounds that are almost exclusively devoted to gross motor activity with the occasional sand pit. The loss of freedom to roam means kids must be driven to parks, their time there will be supervised, and the lack of diverse play experiences will be limited and, to use the kid’s words, boring.

This is new. The parents of today’s kids had a lot of access to self-directed play experiences. They have personal experience with the value they derived from these play episodes, from building deep friendships to developing skills to overcome challenges. These same parents often voice concerns about the amount of exposure their kids have to various media. They often worry about their lack of exercise and diet. Yet even with all of these concerns and direct knowledge of the value of self-directed play, all too many parents are still willing to sequester their children.

When asked to explain these parenting decisions, we often hear concerns about cars, abduction, and social conflict within the neighborhood. To the extent these concerns are real, there are well known ways of addressing these issues. Yet rather than work to put in place traffic calming street features, neighborhood watch programs, and teaching conflict resolution, it is easier to just leash their kids.

Perhaps I’m being overly harsh and I’m happy to hear that my depiction of the life of today’s kids is nothing like I’ve described. But even if you think I’m over the top on this, I think you will grant that there is some truth to what I’ve described. If so, how can we go about changing these trends?

We know what won’t work. Shame won’t work. There has been abundant information out there that tells parents that too much TV is bad, “helicoptering” is bad, over scheduling is bad, etc. etc. So its not like they don’t know, at some level anyway, that the choices they are making are not ideal.

We know good intentions won’t work. There are many organizations that will help them get their kids outdoors and into nature. There are wonderful recreation and camp programs. These and many other efforts try to address the problem. What they all have in common that comprises their ability to produce real change is that they rarely, if ever, allow for self-directed play.

When faced with a problem, each of us bring our unique skill sets to the challenge. Since I’m a designer, I tend to see problems as an opportunity to design solutions. I’ve also learned that a great design solution depends almost entirely on asking the right questions.

Having given this considerable thought I’d like to frame this problem as:

What do parent’s need to allow their kids to have more self-directed play?

The answer to that question is easy:

Parents need to trust that their child will be safe.

Now the $64,000 question:

How can parents learn to trust that their children will be safe even when unsupervised?

OK, we’ve boiled the problem down to increasing parents’ trust in their kids. While there is no magic wand that can solve this challenge, modern psychology provides us with insights we can use to work towards processes that will be effective. Here are a few such ideas.

Incremental: Trust is built up in small steps. If the risk is too challenging, people may be coerced into taking a big risk once but such risks will not become a lifestyle.

Tools: To be effective in making changes, people need new ways of thinking and acting. This requires gaining a sense of control and of empowerment. Tools are often the means to this end. Tools for change can be insights, language, practices, and even physical implements.

Vulnerability: Without vulnerability people just don’t change. Vulnerability is a skill that has to be learned and practiced. That means that in order to allow their children to be self-directed, and thus vulnerable, parents must develop this skill themselves.

We’ve now got the basic design problem and three criteria that must be met to address it. The next step is to throw out various “solutions” at the problem to see how well they work. Generally what happens in this phase is that most solutions don’t work entirely for one reason or another, but even when they fail, they inform the whole process. Another thing that happens is that these proposed solutions let you know if your criteria are correct or if others need to be added.

In this article we have room to only propose one solution, and I hope that you will take a moment to see if it meets the criteria I’ve proposed. Does it need additional criteria? Can you think of another solution that would work?

Mapping the Wild Things

Mapping the Wild Things is a hypothetical program that involves children in finding and recording the wild things in their neighborhood. A “wild thing” is a plant that has not been intentionally placed and cared for or an animal that is not fed or sheltered. These wild things may be native or exotic; indeed, one of the tasks for the children is to determine the difference. Are these wild things beneficial or are they invasive and a threat to native plants and animals?

The project is made more fun for kids by using digital pictures taken with cameras, smart phones, or tablets. Documentation can be scrapbooks, word or spreadsheet documents, or even databases.

Mapping begins with a photo of the wild thing that records its appearance, location, and date. Often this information is automatically generated in modern cameras’ smart devices.

This hypothetical activity could actually become a “product” as a kit for parents and teachers packaged in the form of a retail game, an online support network, or an app – or all of these combined. It would be important to make the product as easy as possible, since the goal is not to learn how to document the environment, but to get kids and parents moving outside in an ever-increasing radius. What we want to see happen is that while the parents may initially be very involved with getting the kids engaged, they soon become comfortable with their children’s exploration. Ideally, they allow this game to be done on smart phones and find that this allows them to know where their kids are and for the kids to call if there is a problem. The process is so easy and natural that one day they look around and discover that they are OK with having “free range” kids.


This little thought exercise is merely one of many possible approaches to the challenges presented in our introduction. It does, however, serve to illustrate several points. First, those of us who recognize the concerns often despair since we see that no matter how much information is out there, the trends in our society seem to be going in the wrong direction. Second, it suggests that there are ways to make effective change, but not by doing what we’ve done before. And finally, there are actual business and career opportunities in this area for those willing to be creative and inventive, and yes, vulnerable.