Risk, Secret Spaces and a Sense of Belonging

Our Forest School is run on the banks of the beautiful Petrie Creek. Technically, where we base ourselves, right on the bank, is probably classed as Crown Land but as the creek weaves past land owned by one of the local churches, we have formed an agreement with the church to use their land for our school. Long story short, this beautiful piece of rainforest is used like public land and is often frequented by dog walkers, BMX bandits and the odd wayward youth.

Today, during one of our morning safety sweeps we happened upon an amazing hand-made shelters\ and a permanent looking bush camp built by some of these said wayward youths. Now… to clarify, all I mean by wayward is that these teens are of the age that they probably ‘should’ be in school (I know, ironic coming from a home-schooling Mum…) or at work but they tend to frequent the PCYC instead. For all we know, the camp and their activities are probably (and very likely) innocent teenage activities that we all got up to when we were teens, yet we had to go and check-up on them to make sure our children were safe.

And this got me thinking…

When and why does what we would call risky play in children (the type we congratulate ourselves for encouraging in our own children) become naughty, or criminal in teenagers? Surely the positive outcomes we see and encourage in our young children still need to be encouraged in their teens. These boys innocently and independently camping along the banks of a magnificent creek, having fun and bonding should be encouraged, particularly if it means these kids are not on the streets doing other not-so-innocent activities. These boys had clearly worked together to build a very stable, very weather proof structure – the exact kind of thing we are trying to encourage our own children to build in our programs! The skills they would have needed, the creativity, the engagement – are all things we want in our children, and all things we are well aware we just can’t force.

But where do these kids go to do this kind of risky activity, if they can’t do it in the local forest in their local town? If they’re not great at sports, or they don’t skate, or they don’t have parents to take them to their chosen activities, what choices do they have if they want to do something risky? Drink? Drive? Graffiti? Petty Crime?

All the research (think Peter Gray, Steve Biddulph etc) tells us that if teens don’t have access to risky activities, then they will go out and find them. And just like the young children in our Forest School programs, risk is essential for these teens’ growth and their ability to make calculated risks in adulthood.
As a community, we need to encourage this kind of risky play and ensure that our teens have these spaces to go to, to learn the rights and wrongs of risk and risky play.

Their little campout also got me thinking about secret spaces and how we never really grow out of them. I grew up on a farm in the middle of whoop-whoop South Australia and some of my favourite memories are of making tree houses and cubby houses with my siblings in the pig sties, between the wool bales and in the old dump where machinery went to die. All places as children, we thought were hidden from adults and where we were generally left alone to play and just be kids.

There was, and still is, something heartening about having a space to call your own. In our Western world, I guess this is generally our bedrooms, man caves and she-sheds; a place where we can retreat from the world, recharge and be surrounded by things that make us happy. And yet back then and even now, I would choose those wild spaces any day of the week. Whether it was because I took ownership of the space myself (e.g. it wasn’t given to me), because it was wild, because I thought it was a bit risky or forbidden or because I so carefully cared, tended and furnished these places with things I found beautiful (old glass bottle, leaves etc), I don’t know. But it was mine, it was ours, it mattered, I felt safe and I belonged.

I only briefly got to see the teens’ camp set-up but in that moment I clearly saw the time, the effort, the skill and the care that they had put into ‘their’ space. In that moment, I was so proud of them. But I didn’t get the chance to tell them that…

So Byron and friends, if you ever get the chance to read this, please know that we would be honoured if you would like to come and share your knowledge with our kids and come and teach them how to build epic secret spaces just like yours, so that they can enjoy our beautiful space just as you do.

We’re sorry for the loss of your special place. Perhaps one day we can all work together to build a place ourselves that we can all enjoy. After all, it takes a village…

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