Natural Antidote To Bullying

antidote to bullying, free play prevents bullying, bullies made by restrictions, nature prevents bullies,

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Children are drawn to challenge themselves. They need to take risks of all kinds—physical, social, emotional, intellectual—in order to grow into mature self-reliance.

Where do such challenges most naturally occur? Outdoors. As detailed in Last Child in the Woods, when children spend time in natural areas their play is more creative and they self-manage risk more appropriately. They’re more likely to incorporate each other’s ideas into expressive make-believe scenarios using their dynamic surroundings—tall grasses become a savannah, tree roots become elf houses, boulders become a fort. Their games are more likely to incorporate peers of differing ages and abilities. Regular outdoor experiences not only boost emotional health, memory, and problem solving, they also help children learn how to get along with each other in ever-changing circumstances. Free outdoor play with others, especially when it’s not hampered by adult interference, teaches kids to interact with others while also maintaining self-control. Otherwise, no one wants to play with them. It’s the best sort of learning because it’s fun. Sounds like the perfect way to raise bully-proof kids doesn’t it?

But the opportunity for free play and risk is funneled into very narrow options for today’s children. They are shuttled from one adult-run activity to another. Time between these obligations is often spent indoors. And children’s outdoor play is restricted by excessive rules designed to keep them safe from dangers out of proportion to any real safety issue.

So kids don’t get natural challenges like climbing trees, exploring fields, building forts. They are deprived of the rich lessons of cooperation and self-control found in free play. And they don’t develop biophilia, that essential sense of connection with nature. Then we expect them to get along and recognize real risk. Any wonder that bullying is a growing problem?

Here are examples of playground designs that, in institutions like schools and daycare programs, foster free play using natural materials. Sensory play, places for solitude, and opportunities for physical risk are built in and, no surprise, children get along better.

It’s a step in the right direction. A few steps farther and we’ll let kids back in nature herself, playing in woods and fields and beaches. Too bad all the money thrown at anti-bullying programs aren’t used to fling open the doors to the natural world. “Go out and play,” may very well be the best anti-bullying advice yet.

13 thoughts on “Natural Antidote To Bullying

  1. I believe you… and yet I can’t help but notice the times when my kid’s at a play date, inside or out, apparently not aware of the presence of the adults (in another room, or deeply engaged), and there’s a conflict that progresses to one shouting No repeatedly, or one sitting in tears…

    I imagine that kids starting out with plenty of this free outdoor play would be well skilled, but what do you do to help kids that are having these sorts of conflicts? I want to be fair to my kid and the other kid…


    • The research on free outdoor play is pretty interesting Marcy. Maybe it’ll shed some light on this. (Free as in unstructured, w/o adult instruction or guidance.) It shows a clear difference in behavior when kids are playing in natural spaces such as fields and woods as compared to playing with or around man-made objects such as toys or play structures (swings, climbing equipment, etc). Natural spaces evoke much more imaginative and cooperative play, with kids more easily including peers of differing ages, staying engaged longer, and making up new games. Man-made areas such as parks and man-made objects such as toys and climbing equipment (while fun!) do not in these studies seem to bring out this same level of creative, cooperative play.

      That said, conflict resolution can be taught to kids at any age. That’s a big topic but here are a few basics. Maintain strong guidelines such that include “We don’t hurt ourselves or others.” Even preschoolers can learn to set aside a disputed toy to discuss it, coming up with options like take turns, share it, no one plays with it—-options they brainstorm on their own once they learn to set aside the toy. A key for adults is to care, showing concern but not solving the problem or assigning blame—rather expecting kids to solve it on their own. Sometimes this requires disengagement, ending the play date if there’s more arguing than fun. Social skills aren’t always learned quickly.


      • Is the research mainly looking at larger groups of kids?

        If not, does it mean I should try to have play dates that are willing to meet in the woods or at the beach instead of at someone’s house? While we can talk to kids about conflict resolution ahead of time, do we wait until they show some ability to practice it before sending them out for unsupervised play?

        Sounds like in the case of an unbalanced conflict — i.e. one kid is yelling, the other crying or withdrawn — someone needs to intervene to facilitate their problem solving — expecting them to work it out does not mean expecting them to work it out without any guidance or mediation?


        • That’s a good question Marcy. I don’t have time to dig up the specific research right now and honestly can’t recall whether it focused on groups of kids versus lone kids encountering other lone kids. One take-away message from lots of the research on play in green spaces is that there’s no upper limit on the benefits. In other words, a child who plays in woods/field/beach for longer regular periods of time has increasing benefit to his or her patience, positive self-image, ability to focus, even better sleep. So I’m guessing regular expose to green spaces would help with handling stressors like a difficult playmate no matter where that play happened.

          Definitely talk about conflict resolution in advance. Actually it’s easy to talk about it throughout the regular day. I don’t mean just “what to do when there’s a problem” but all the skills that go into identifying feelings (our own and others), empathizing with others as well as sticking up for ourselves, expressing our needs appropriately, seeking adult help when necessary, finding solutions, etc. When we read or watch a program together, we can talk about feelings, motivations, and outcome of the character’s behavior quite casually afterwards—-“what would have happened if” and “why do you think ____ said/did that” sorts of questions can really help you see how your child understands various interactions and helps broaden the discussion to other options. Also, the more “feeling” words the better. Kids of all ages tend to use few words beyond the typical mad/sad/happy while feeling the whole range. Throughout the day identify feelings (in stories, in play, that you observe) with words that expand their emotion vocabulary (frustrated, jealous, excited, etc) which helps them get in touch with and express what’s going on inside themselves. Finding solutions is important, learning that one’s desired outcome isn’t always the link to happiness, also important.

          I don’t know how old your child is, but I don’t mean to imply anyone should abandon kids in distress. The younger the child, the more guidance and mediation is required. You want to foster problem-solving skills while not making them dependent on adults for every little thing. And again, removing them from a situation that’s untenable, may be the best solution for small kids. It’s best for the bully to see that his/her actions aren’t the way to maintain a friendship, best for the withdrawing child to have friends who don’t make play into a power play.


          • Thank you. I suppose for one thing I need to be taking my little one (she’s five) to such places more often, as much as I can. And to keep trying to be aware and ready to help (by mediating or by leaving or by temporarily separating (like to do a bit of stay-listening)) during play with other(s).


  2. I generally agree with what you write here but, in this case, I don’t. Whilst the outdoors and open ended, free play are fantastic and wonderful for children of all kinds, ages and interests, the issues behind bullying are far greater than children needing to engage in free play. Personally, where free play was by far the norm at my primary school, I and others were bullied from the first grade onwards in such free play environments as you describe and that are very similar to the ones shown.

    I also have experience in creating freeform learning spaces for children as a Montessori teacher and, again, this does not eliminate bullying nor even particularly curb it on its own.

    Ending, or curbing, bullying takes a conscientious effort on behalf of a community to promote and model acceptance, caring and love in conjunction with good learning options, a wide choice of free time activities including indoor, outdoor, structured and unstructured play and learning. It involves creating an environment where children can build a strong sense of self and a realistic view of their strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weakness of the people around them, with acceptance.

    I feel you are romanticizing the free play outdoor environment and projecting it as a solution on to a problem that was around both before and after outdoor free play was the main option in childhood.


    • In my attempt to write a shorter post (brevity isn’t one of my skills) you are right. I’ve oversimplified a complex issue. I’ve taught non-violence in schools for years (to staff), hearing over and over that anti-bullying measure are ineffective. These caring, concerned educators do the absolute best they can within the structure of school to emphasize acceptance, de-escalate conflicts, promote self-worth, and maintain procedures to resolve disputes. Many of them tell me that bullying continues to get worse, reaching levels they’ve never seen in careers spanning decades.

      For your consideration, I’ll mention observations that initially astonished me but now I find commonplace. They’re relevant to bullying but not necessarily to spending time in nature. I’m not exactly sure what factors are relevant but clearly it has something to do with more family time or less time spent within the structure of adult-run programs—-school in particular. Accustomed to the peer culture of school—exclusivity, same-aged playmates, shunning and mockery being common—I hadn’t expected to find these elements largely absent from most homeschool groups. I continue to see homeschooled kids eagerly welcome multi-age companions, accept one another’s other’s foibles and unusual interests, and display inclusiveness. Of course I’m not saying this is the case 100% of the time. Homeschool groups tend to have a wide diversity of kids, some with significant developmental issues, many coming from homes with widely different approaches to learning/faith/lifestyle, and there are many destructive group dynamics that impair these organizations which filter down to the kids. Nonetheless, there’s a noticeable difference between school and homeschool social behavior. It’s not just my observation. I interviewed over 110 homeschooling families from around the world for my book. I only spend a paragraph or two on their enthusiasm for how well kids get along because I couldn’t truly identify the causal factors and because I didn’t want to head in the direction of “homeschooled kids are better” that’s too often seen. Still, the observation is relevant to this bullying discussion.


      • As a family that left the mainstream school system for homeschooling I agree wholeheartedly. Part of the reason I feel that bullying, and many other antisocial behaviors, are absent from many homeschooler interactions is that there is a broader spectrum of people involved, meaning very young children all the way through to grandparents. This reflects the society we lived in until very recently where schooling with age segregation became the norm.

        However I also have to acknowledge that homeschoolers are there by choice and that these families, in general, have chosen involved and generally community minded parenting practices and that this too has to have an effect on the way homeschoolers interact. It would be a very interesting subject for study – why is there less conflict and violence between homeschoolers vs mainstream schoolers?

        I appreciate that a blog is about summing up an idea, not about presenting a whole one and I do acknowledge that free play in the outdoors offers children the opportunity to face and overcome fears and risks and also to find strengths and self-reliance. I am heavily involved in Australian Scouting (quite different from American style Scouting in many respects) because I see the children in Scouting, particularly the surbanites, discovering these very things when they get the chance to really go outdoors (in Australia we call it ‘going bush’). I am also pleased to say that our group is a haven from bullying for many of the children we work with, particularly those with Special Needs. This article does provide an explanation for why, when we go bush, we see children who choose to steer away from each other in our suburban setting establish new and different relationships in the free form bush environment.

        I suppose, having experienced bullying and pulled my children from mainstream school to avoid this issue, I am very wary of anyone who espouses that bullying has a ‘simple’ solution or that ‘back to basics’ is the answer. We are only putting band aids on bullying until we al act as a community to promote acceptance and mindful action – and perhaps that’s where the homeschoolers are getting it right.


        • So well said. I couldn’t agree with you more.

          You’re giving me the courage to write a post on the topic of reduced aggression in homeschool groups Rosemary. It’s hard to write about without stepping on toes.


          • It is a difficult topic to broach, bunt perhaps there is something to learn there for everyone. And maybe it will shine a light of refuge for those suffering from bullying in mainstream school.


  3. The healing quality of nature is a subtle, vaguely understood phenomena. It is not a standalone answer. Whatever inspires people to homeschool also inspires them to slow down, to listen more deeply, to ponder what they are about. Homeschoolers might stand out in this regard because they are a somewhat a community, but I know amazing individuals with children in school who are following a path to raise a whole-hearted child (coined from Bene Brown’s use of the word in talk on the power of vulnerability.)

    Some amount of conflict is normal among children and people in general. We gain understanding after we have successfully navigated a conflict. We grow. The challenges of our fast-paced society are such that the time it takes to listen and talk through conflict with children is simply not there. Children need someone to help them process their experiences with difficult people. This requires 4 things: time, a feeling of safety/trust (don’t take over, don’t judge them), real listening ( hear, acknowledge, affirm) . Don’t solve the problem for the child.

    My best cases of solutions/resolution came from the child after I followed these steps. We can help children know that, “hey, people are hard to understand sometimes, but we can try. C’mon, talk to me about it.” My vote is for slower pace, presence and ability to listen/affirm, AND nature.

    Back to vulnerability. Children know that bullies are unhappy people. When they can share their feelings of frustration etc with a good listener, it empowers them to bear the unpleasantness of another. They realize the strength in their own vulnerability. If they gave it up, they may become a miserable bully. So help them cherish their vulnerability. To see it as a precious thing that they can maintain only with their inner guidance systems, by following their heart.

    Kierkegaard said, “Perfect love means to love the one through whom one becomes unhappy.”


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