On a recent walk at Haldon Forest near Exeter I passed a small child playing with his parents. I smiled, my attention captured by the carefree playfulness that children, like this boy, seem innately capable of. The ways they can become completely absorbed in the moment, their attention captured by the scurry of a squirrel, the roll of an acorn as it falls from a tree and bounces along the ground, the excitement of an unusual stick or the magic of discovering a hidden den in the trunk of a hollowed-out tree – ‘the epitome of mindfulness’, I thought to myself, somewhat enviously.
Ellen Devine at Forestry England has written a blog for us all about play and playfulness. It's a powerful reminder of the wonder of forests and play. A substantial and growing evidence base demonstrates the importance of play and playfulness as positive contributors to human experience.
Ellen Devine from Forestry England at one with nature.
I often, including on this early morning, pre-work walk, I find myself preoccupied by worries (did I send that email or just think about it, will the car pass the MOT without costing me the earth, how will we cope with rising energy bills, is this sore throat the first sign of covid, exactly what should I do about the war in Ukraine, and how are we ever going to sort out the climate crisis?) and constrained by deadlines, things to do, places to be. “I must make time to be more playful” I thought, already adding ‘schedule in time to be playful’ to my mental to-do list, before recognising the irony of this, taking a deep breath and smiling to myself.
A substantial and growing evidence base demonstrates the importance of play and playfulness as positive contributors to human experience, with the World Economic Forum even going as far as to ask ‘can play save the world?’ (World Economic Forum, 2018)
A bold question, you may think, for something so often trivialised or seen as ‘childish’, and yet, the value of play is being increasingly recognised for adults as well as children (Tonkin and Whitaker, 2021). Play, on our own, with others or even with a pet can help to relieve stress, improve brain function, stimulate creativity, improve relationships and boost your energy (The benefits of play for adults, HelpGuide). Play also enables us to immerse ourselves in the present moment, to connect with others and with the environment around us. It is a channel through which we can develop a closer relationship with the nature within and around us, to explore how we think about, feel about and experience nature and to value our relationship with it (Richardson and Butler, 2022, The Nature Connection Handbook)
As the little boy at Haldon Forest so effortlessly seemed to find, forests excite and, if we allow it, draw out the playful instinct inside us all. Here are some invitations which, if approached with a playful attitude, could help you find fun, peace and connection.
Marvel at all things great and small
Connecting with nature by engaging with our senses can help lower stress-levels, help us feel calmer and improve wellbeing. Take a moment to pause, look closely at the intricacy of a snail’s shell or the pattern of the bark on a tree, pick up a leaf and feel it’s texture between your thumb and forefinger, listen for the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves of a tree.
Embrace a playful mindset to improve your relationships with others
Sharing laughter with a friend or stranger fosters empathy, understanding and connection. Next time you’re on a forest adventure, smile at a stranger, invite a friend to join you in something ‘silly’ like counting squirrels or collecting sticks, or share a photo with a loved one of a funny looking tree that caught your attention!
Make exercise fun
We’re more likely to maintain a physically active lifestyle if we enjoy the exercise we do. Forget about step-counters, running pace or miles cycled; embrace moving in a way that feels good for you, go where your body takes you, at the pace it wants to travel. Be curious – try a new route, explore an area of the forest you haven’t been to before, walk your usual route in the other direction.
Go where your imagination takes you
Play England defines play as ‘what children and young people do when they follow their own ideas and interests, in their own ways, and for their own reasons’. Resist the urge to pop on your headphones and allow your imagination to be captured by your surroundings and your thoughts to become playful musings: the beauty of a mass of dew laden cobwebs (I wonder where the spiders all are?), the song of a robin bobbing from branch to branch (where are you going to little red-breast?), joy of crunching through and kicking up fallen leaves (if only I still had the bright yellow wellies I wore as a child).
Where will playfulness take you?
Not convinced to give play a try? You don’t have to be! Michael Rosen writes in ‘Book of Play’: “[b]eing in play, being in the state of mind that says, ‘I wonder what might happen if I tried this’ and then not worrying or being afraid of the outcome, is a state of mind that can cope with the unexpected.” So give it a go; you never know, when you go down to the woods today, you may well be in for a (playful) surprise!
Forests offer so many opportunities for playfulness – why not check out the range of free resources from Forestry England to find your inspiration.