nature play


This winter I helped put together a list of picture books organized around the four seasons. The books will live at an organization I’m involved with, Smith Memorial Playhouse & Playground — one of those quirky, only-in-Philly, historic institutions that Philadelphia boosters love to tout as an example of what makes Philadelphia so great (which it does).

When Smith came into existence in 1899, it was a radical proposition. A mansion-sized playhouse? (16,000 s.f.) Set in a sprawling, wooded, urban park?! With a 6.5 acre playground!?! Open to ALL KIDS !?!? For free!?!?!


Smith Playhouse (

At the turn of the last century, massive urbanization and child labor sparked new ideas about childhood and the importance of play, and the Playground Movement found great supporters in Richard and Sarah Smith, who built the place in memoriam to their late son, Stanfield.

Smith playground Smith Slide

Smith remains a radical proposition today. Visitors still play there at no charge, and you find an amazing degree of socio-economic and racial diversity. Like the city’s public library system – which came into being in roughly the same period – Smith persists as a uniquely Democratic and public mixing-ground. The playhouse and playground serve children from every zip code in this city — plus lots of kids from outside Philly too.

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Smith Playhouse Library (photo:

Inside the playhouse a small library occupies a sunny, corner room, offering adults and their charges respite from the hubbub and hosting regular story hours. The library has traditionally been stocked with donated, hand-me-down books. Those donated books are full of animals and able bodied, English-speaking white people. Thoughtful and generous though they are, the books don’t reflect the world that we live in, nor the diversity of families Smith serves: Philadelphia’s 1.5 million residents are 43% black, 41% white, 12% latino, and 6% asian; 26% of our population lives below the poverty line (24K/year for a family of 4). When kids play at Smith, they rub elbows with children from all walks.

(For a super-eloquent argument as to why this state of affairs simply isn’t ok, check out the late Walter Dean Myers’ 2014 NY Times Opinion piece.)


Smith’s setting in a wooded, urban park has long been part of its draw and, in keeping with the ideas of the Nature Play Movement, Smith has lately been doing great work expanding its offerings of nature based play (see here and here).

Staff decided to begin stocking the library more intentionally in conjunction with these initiatives, focussing, for starters, on the seasons. Purchasing new books also presented the opportunity to diversify the collection, and including more African American authors and characters became a logical, first focus.

Smith New Nature Play Area

Smith’s new Nature Explore nature play area (photo courtesy of Smith/Zoe Hillengas)

But finding a range of books that are seasonal in some way or another, and also feature African American characters, has been an uphill battle. I have found some wonderful titles, but not enough.

For WINTER, Ezra Jack Keats’ iconic Peter loomed large – a historic figure in the diversification of children’s books. But beyond that, I only found a few cold-season titles.


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SUMMER offered the greatest bounty.

ChickenChasinQueenbeachtail ComeOnRain hotdayonabbott Juneteenth for Mazie MyBestFriend OneHotSummerDay Shortcut SummerSunRisin Summertime TarBeach TwentyYawns

For SPRING, a handful of African American book-kids (or African American authors) plant street trees, grow gardens and splash in the rain. But again, not enough.

IfYouPlantASeed RainFeet TheRainStomper

WePlantedATree Eve Bunting Flower Garden

And FALL seemed to be the season where black folks are most scarce (though you’d think more people would be hanging out on stoops and in yards and in parks, enjoying the cool fall air after the brutal heat of the summer that is recounted in so many of the SUMMER books featuring African Americans.). FALL truly, nearly broke me.

51SVW44CMJL._SX258_BO1,204,203,200_A Leaf

Books about the seasons are just one sliver of what’s out there, but seasons are a popular theme in the early childhood world. And in any case, I’m pretty sure that my struggle would repeat with any other thematically organized list as well — unless that list focussed on Africa, discrimination, civil rights, or slavery.

Having so few books to choose from means that a narrow, limited story is being told. During my search, I became hyper-aware of the boundary between books that are culturally sensitive and books that – in the absence of a broader selection of titles and range of stories — reinforce misguided or stereotyped ideas about what it might mean to be African American.

I hope that someone will comment, telling me I’ve missed a huge trove — that I need to know about this or that author or publisher who I’ve completely overlooked. Or, will at least offer up a few more titles. Meanwhile: let’s keep working to write, publish, buy and share with children MORE DIVERSE BOOKS. And, of course, support #weneeddiversebooks.


The list is now in the hands of the generous and wonderful Children’s Book World, where books will be sitting at the check-out counter with a sign asking willing patrons to add the purchase price of one or two to their order on Smith’s behalf. If you shop there, please indulge (or call in a purchase!). And if you’re local and you don’t know CBW: check it out. The Philadelphia region is so lucky to have a great indie bookstore devoted specifically to children’s books!

“an education in the possible” in “the wilderness of childhood”


At an alumni event a couple weeks ago at the Design School at Penn, a landscape architect I’d recently met asked for an elevator speech on my career and interests. I gave it my best shot, but thankfully we got interrupted before I could finish — about 4 minutes into what was no doubt a much longer ride than he had bargained for.

I’ve always maintained that there are threads that link my work as a writer, landscape architect, play advocate, teacher, naturalist-wannabe, mother, etc. But I’m never able to articulate exactly what the connections are, beyond offering that a focus on children runs through them all. Sometimes I float phrases like “a lot of my stories derive from natural phenomena” or “my writing tends to have a really strong sense of place” — both feeble attempts at articulating a connection that I know is there.


A couple days after that meandering elevator speech, I came across an Adam Gopnik piece I’d torn from a New Yorker many, many years ago. About children’s books, Gopnik says “What children need is an education in the possible….. Children know perfectly well who they are; all experience conspires to tell them that. What they would like to know is who they may yet be, and what boat they have to take to get there.”

His words reminded me of an argument for the importance of play, and particularly dramatic play, which had always resonated with me. Play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith has this idea that imaginative play involves an exploration of possibilities and that, in Sutton-Smith’s words‘‘The adaptive advantage [from an evolutionary perspective] has often gone to those who ventured upon their possibility with cries of exultant commitment…. What is adaptive about play, therefore, may be not only the skills that are a part of it but also the willful belief in acting out one’s own capacity for the future.’’ 

This idea that play and story both help children to imagine futures — and moreover to envision their own agency in shaping those futures — is so powerful. Play and books (and life experiences, too) give kids the real, intellectual and emotional space to explore and test the possible. In an interview with KidsReads, Kate DiCamillo says of writing children’s books, “I love that books for kids allow for magic and demand hope…”  Reading, writing and play: hope undergirds all of them.

Ok, so there it is: my functional and philosophical link between play and children’s literature. Phew. Now, what about landscape?


Conversations about play and landscape have followed a few overlapping tracks in the US’s popular media lately:

Much is written about how unstructured play has been squeezed from the lives of modern children. At one end of the socio-economic spectrum, parents hover, filling their children’s days with extracurriculars, enrichment classes, and infinite other structured, adult-driven activities. At all income levels, electronics and screens now dominate what little free time chidlren do have.

Accompanying and contributing to these trends is our cultural obsession with danger. We are sold everything under the sun by having various fears tapped into and, because in the US we are so prone to suing, our cities and towns and suburbs are plagued with uninspired and unintegrated straight-from-the-catalog play structures. Within the design world, there is a great push for a move away from the monotony of safety-focussed, catalog-purchased playstructures and towards unique designs that engage kids (Paige Johnson’s play-scapes blog is a great voice in the push for good design in outdoor play spaces).

Adventure play and adventure playgrounds — which originated in Europe mid-century and incorporate “loose parts”, lots of mess, and relatively hands-off supervision by trained “play workers”, are also on the table as places where children can better learn to negotiate danger and experiment with less prescribed physical, material and social worlds (see this recent article in The Atlantic).

Finally the Nature Play movement, which gained much traction after the 2005 publication of Richard Louv’s Last Child In the Woods, has focussed specifically on unstructured play in nature, and on the degree to which modern children in developed countries are increasingly deprived of unsupervised time in wild or natural or green spaces.

Why does free time outdoors in ‘natural’ or ‘wild’ spaces matter? There are developmental arguments about the unique sensory stimulation and engagement that nature offers, and about fostering independence, and about learning to negotiate risk. And then there is an argument about love. Environmental Psychologist Louise Chawla has studied and written extensively about the factors that lead people to develop a strong environmental commitment and sense of efficacy. Her research subjects, who were all evnironmentally committed and active, first developed their attachment to the natural world in childhood. And they developed this connection through free, unstructured time spent outdoors.

Children learn to love the natural world by being in it: playing, exploring, planting, picking, making and messing around. Stuff them full of all the facts you want about melting icebergs and dwindling populations of sea turtles; it won’t matter if they haven’t first developed a personal and hands-on affinity.

Chawla identified a second key factor in her subjects’ development as well: a childhood relationship with an adult who demonstates and shares a similar affinity for the natural world. This person is usually a family member or sometimes a teacher. In any case, he or she is understood more as mentor or guide than as imparter-of-knowledge. Which, at their best, all teachers should be.

A sharing and transmittal of this Rachel Carson-esque sense of wonder — somehow pure and elemental — carries real urgency, now, as ongoing population growth continues to bring rapid change to the natural world and our realtionship with it, and continuing urbanization increasingly distances people from un-cultivated and first-hand engagement with nature’s cycles and permutations.


The Sense of Wonder brings me back to children’s books. A couple years ago author Micheal Chabon wrote about what he called “The Wilderness of Childhood“, and got at the question of landscape in relation to books. “Most great stories of adventure,” he wrote, “from The Hobbit to Seven Pillars of Wisdom, come furnished with a map. That’s because every story of adventure is in part the story of a landscape, of the interrelationship between human beings (or Hobbits, as the case may be) and topography. Every adventure story is conceivable only with reference to the particular set of geographical features that in each case sets the course, literally, of the tale…..”

Chabon goes on,”The thing that strikes me now when I think about the Wilderness of Childhood is the incredible degree of freedom my parents gave me to adventure there. …. What is the impact of the closing down of the Wilderness on the development of children’s imaginations?…. Art is a form of exploration, of sailing off into the unknown alone, heading for those unmarked places on the map. If children are not permitted—not taught—to be adventurers and explorers as children, what will become of the world of adventure, of stories, of literature itself?”

So there it is, full circle: from children’s books to play to landscape and back to children’s books. Landscapes (real and fictional) and play within them (actual and imagined) are important, essential parts of childhood. And they are key ingredients in raising children who love their worlds (natural and otherwise) and feel empowered to act in and take care of them. It’s pretty basic and important stuff.

Meanwhile, my new, improved and concise elevator speech remains a work in progress. (I clearly have a ways to go on the ‘concise’ part.)