an exploration of play motifs

A dear friend, believer in and lover of wilderness, and inspiring mama  turned me on to the work of David Sobel.  I am reading, well not really reading, more like hopping slowly around, his book Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators.  And since we are all educators (we are!), this book, I think, makes for inspiring ideas for all of us who spend time with small folk.


First, what grabs me is his fresh approach to formulating profound ideas about how to foster a love of nature and a seriousness about caring for the earth.  He starts by simply observing children playing in nature.  Lots of observing.  And then lots of thinking.  Plus a whole bunch of wisdom and insight.  From all of this hard, but I am sure very fun, work, patterns emerge. From the patterns, Sobel has identified seven play motifs — common strands of play observed in children from all walks of life in all different ecosystems.


This is both profound and so ordinary, which makes it awesome.  One of the feelings that overwhelms me when I watch the boys play in the wild is the comfort in knowing that what they are doing is exactly what children have been doing for millennia!  Eventhough we buy our food instead of hunt and gather, drive cars instead of ride horses, and cook in microwaves instead of over the fire, the kids, well they are still playing the same as they were when we were still doing all of those things.  Like Sobel, I think this makes a great case for the evolutionary significance of nature play and a double case for the importance of this play in educating sustainably for sustainability.


So back to those seven play motifs, they are: 1) adventure, 2) fantasy and imagination, 3) animal allies, 4) maps and paths, 5) special places, 6) small worlds, and 7) hunting and gathering.  I am a lot excited about ruminating on each of these themes as we flit about the forest.  Many of them I have already thought about and intently observed.  Others aren’t entirely new, but will make for fresh soil for growing.  Oh this will be fun.  Hope you don’t mind playing along.


Hope you are playing in the forest, too. 


4 thoughts on “an exploration of play motifs

  1. awesome! count me in! 12 more days and counting until i can fully immerse myself in the wild instead of just thinking about it. so happy to see the little ones at home and play among rock, trees, lichens, and birds.
    big hugs, c

  2. hiya, if you like sobel, he’s an antioch professor in new england where i went, different dept though, i never got to take a course with him, you should check out either of these books by him…
    Mapmaking with Children: Sense of Place Education for the Elementary Years


    Place-based Education: Connecting Classrooms & Communities

    I have read parts of the later and i know what you mean by his writing. he is simple, and so true when it comes to pointing out the utter importance of a place based learning environment our children need to be nurtured by on the daily.

    I applaud the kinderwald and your making it happen for them. Yeah! wish we could romp in muck and cross rivers together. we’ll have to scheme somehow, sometime. hugs to boys, big and small, and wee lil. miss yous. love csi md

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