Playing Games to Build Nature Connection – Wilderness Awareness Games

“Brain research suggests that sensory input and mental focus lead to deeply imprinted pattern learning when experienced in an “adrenalated state.” Who is more full of adrenaline surges than excited kids playing games? Passionate playfulness is embedded in our human blueprint for learning.” Jon Young

When supporting people, especially young people, to connect with the natural world we aim to find techniques that engage their inner passions. Wilderness Awareness Games play a critical role in all of our programs at Educated by Nature, supporting mentors to engage children in experiences that inspire and invigorate.

These games are a collection of activities that target core routines of deep nature connection through active, playful experiences. We were first introduced to Wilderness Awareness Games when we came across the 8 Shields Institute and the Art of Mentoring (our underlying core inspiration).

What are Wilderness Awareness Games?

Generally, the Wilderness Awareness Games we play are high energy, involve fast movement – running, chasing, dodging, jumping – and get the heart pumping. They are based on animal behaviours observed in the wild and often require children to imitate the forms or actions of particular animals. There are rules and instructions for each game that require focus. The games require balance and coordination – developing agility in the body and stretching proprioception and equilibrioception. Games are collaborative and often require teams that develop cooperation and empathy. If your child has participated in one of our programs, ask them about Fire in the Forest, Otter Steals Fish, Tail Tag or Nutty Squirrels.

Other Wilderness Awareness Games we play are less active and focus more on stillness, such as Eagle Eye, Sleeping Fawn, Chudditch stalks Dunnart. These games enhance awareness and the full use of the senses. They open our peripheral vision, hearing, ability to spot intricate details or simply develop our patience in being still in nature.

It’s about Nature Connection

Whether high energy or focused, the Wilderness Awareness Games work in subtle ways to encourage children to physically connect with the earth in more subtle, indirect ways. By engaging in play types that children are naturally drawn to, they practice skills without knowing they are ‘practicing’ anything at all. It’s why Jon Young, the Founder of the 8 Shields Institute, describes these experiences as ‘the invisible school’.

“To the people you serve, it may seem like nothing but running through woods, playing games, and listening to stories. An underlying intention they never realise lies beneath this surface evidence. By subtly and invisibly using Child Passions to get people to practice Core Routines and so read the Book of Nature, you engage them in learning without them ever knowing it. You are running an ‘Invisible School’.” Jon Young

Biophobia and Nature Disconnect

Many children today have an underlying fear of the natural world, of things that crawl, or being dirty, or the unknown of outdoor spaces. Richard Louv, in his book, The Last Child In the Woods coined the phrase ‘nature deficit disorder.’

“Nature-deficit disorder describes the human cost of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illness. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families and communities.” Richard Louv

This alienation provides barriers when inviting children outside, into natural spaces. For some children, the idea of sitting on the bare earth, crawling through a shrubby bush space, running barefoot through a field or simply walking along a bush track on a Summer’s day, provides a challenge to the senses and a fear response kicks in. However, when we invite children into games in nature these fears often fall away, the child becomes focussed on the task at hand – stealing from the nest, dodging obstacles, hiding as still as possible in a pile of leaves and twigs. In these moments of adrenaline-fuelled engagement or complete concentration, these same children lay close to the earth, forget about the creepy crawlies and ‘unknowns’ in these natural spaces and build connection and acceptance of the space. In these times they are ‘wiring’ new neural pathways in their brains, pathways of connection and comfort with nature that support the development of resilience.

“As the nature deficit grows, another emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. For example, new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.” Richard Louv

Parents Reactions

We often get asked questions about the specifics of our programs, ‘What is it, exactly, that the children will be doing?’ This is a difficult question to answer given the complexity of the mentoring experiences we provide. When developing our programs, we begin with a specific structure, a container, that provides the framework for the session based on the Natural Cycle.  These Wilderness Awareness Games fit into this cycle in many ways.

At the start of the day, we use the games as a tool to break down barriers and connect as a group, an informal way of meeting new people and connecting with space. On a purely logistic angle, our facilitators play a game with the children that arrive at a KIN Village session as a way of engaging in an exciting, high energy way while their parents sign them in!

Mini-games like Wah are played throughout the day when the group meets back together at home base before lunch or before gathering to share stories. Games such as Eagle Eye and Sleeping Fawn are played in the afternoon when energies are dropping, and our bodies are telling us to relax and take a rest. At the end of the day, we use high energy, quick burst games as a form of celebration and sharing one last moment of fun together before we farewell. Other games in the ‘kit bag’ are used when specific things are witnessed or observed in the environment such as a dolphin visiting the shoreline to fish, a djiti djiti chasing a raven through the trees.

“Growth and learning occur so gradually and invisibly, that people express shock when they finally realize the depth of the education and the connections they have formed.” Jon Young

Developing Local Context

The Wilderness Awareness Games we play at KIN Village and Bush Inventors’ Club have been developed by Nature Connection Mentors in the northern hemisphere, so they often are based on animals in that bio region. Our mentors are therefore challenged to connect with our local landscape and edit the games to include local flora and fauna. Often this change occurs in collaboration with the participants, further enhancing the nature connection experience of the game.

Our favourite example of this game edit is the game Jays and Juncos, a strategy and story-based game involving a series of birds, foraging for food, protecting a nest and surviving in the midst of predators. We don’t have the birds Jays or Juncos in Australia, so we replace these characters in the game with Djiti Djitis (Willy Wag Tails) and Wardong (Raven). The additional birds and predators that are added as the game progresses to build the complexity then becomes a discussion point. It provides an opportunity to discuss local and indigenous knowledge and awareness of the wildlife that lives in the children’s neighbourhood.

Opportunity for Authentic Discussion

This game, Djiti Djitis and Wardongs, is also a fantastic way of finding real-life opportunities to authentically share facts and information about animal behaviours and environmental phenomena. It provides an opportunity for discussion around observations that the children make about what they see in their local natural spaces. It also helps give context to discussing emotional responses to stressful, risky or exciting experiences, physical responses that help us become more aware of our heartbeat, breathing rate etc, and lastly, our social responses related to winning and losing, playing as a team, sharing and cooperation.

Bush Inventors’ Club Video Blog

In one of our early episodes of Campfire Conversations, two of the Educated by Nature staff, Trudi Bennett and Andrew Haskell Salazar chat about their experience. They worked with a group of children in a local bushland space to develop nature awareness and the skill of tracking using the Wilderness Awareness Games Techniques.

Wilderness Awareness Games play a critical role in all of Educated by Nature’s programs. They tap into the very essence of childhood – PLAY – and provide rich, authentic and engaging opportunities to learn about the world around us, each other and most importantly ourselves. By providing a balance between action and energy, stillness and focus, discussion and reflection, this simple tool in our Nature Educator’s kit bag helps to teach skills in the most natural of ways building connection to nature, to community and to self.