Evolving from “Early Childhood Education” to Early Childhood Attachment and Outdoor Play

Evolving from “Early Childhood Education” to Early Childhood Attachment and Outdoor Play

When education and the raising of children aligns with the rhythms and cycles of Mother Nature, then we will have woken up. Nothing rushed, nothing forced, just enough structure to allow for what wants to unfold to happen in its sweet soulful time, trusting and respecting due order, the higher agenda of the child, and that of Life. We are speaking of a complete reorganization of society’s principles and values, such that we return to living in nature, as nature itself.

What we call “early childhood education” is only a recent phenomenon in Western culture. Prior to the last 100 years, children learned through the natural impulses of exploration and engaging with family and friends. Their education was often outside, self-directed through unstructured, unsupervised play, and thus developmentally appropriate. It arose through blending into the customs and traditions of the society, such as building things with their hands, like tools or baskets, and from learning about the land they lived and depended on. In all this, family and nature were constants. 

What we’ve done in recent decades with what we call “early childhood education” is take a most natural, organic and relational process and package and profit from it in order to prepare children for a world that we can hopefully agree is crumbling. As I’ve written about extensively, organic process — specifically that of familial attachment and self-directed play — has been replaced with products and procedure deemed important to our “progressive” culture, ones outside the context of family, nature, tradition, and indeed the soul of the child. 

It’s no coincidence there has been a rise in mental health disorders around the same time period we’ve been shuffling children from outdoors to indoors and away from family. Look at any traditional indigenous society, or how we’ve lived historically in tightly woven land-based communities, and you’ll see children spending far more time attaching to and playing with the extended family and Mother Nature. Along with the primary attachment figures, which include grandparents, which I’ll get into, nature is an essential and powerful co-regulator for the child. Its serene and vast landscapes provide nourishment for the rapidly developing nervous system and soul; and intimate contact with it, such as with the soil, supports the immune system. Yet, without regularly “resting in connection” with both the people closest to the child and trees, birds and rivers, combined with excessive screen time and unhealthy, chemically-laced and hormone- and anti-biotic-ridden food — both of which are also recent phenomena — we have the world today, where children are being diagnosed with all sorts of disorders and diseases that never existed before and given toxic medication with long-term side effects. 

Indeed, play and attachment with these primary sources of family and nature have long been the “education”, not a sophisticated, cookie-cutter, bureaucratic construct designed to feed an archaic institution and dysfunctional society. With all due respect to the well-intended and kind-hearted educators throughout the world, thousands of which I used to lead trainings for, education without the two grass roots, organic sources of outdoor play and primary attachment is, in my humble opinion, not the “education” children need. Though certain educators do a wonderful job at providing a learning environment with co-regulation and exploratory, unstructured play, I strongly believe that this outsourced solution cannot replace the needed primary bond with family and nature, especially at that tender age when children are so attachment driven, thrive on wide open spaces, and need the familiarity of all that comes with home. 

It’s hard to tell, though, isn’t it? Children are good at pretending all is okay, when it’s actually not. They appear to be comfortably focused on their crafts and cooking set, but underneath is a whole complex range of anxiety. That anxiety is not meant to be addressed by school-taught meditation and mindfulness lessons, but properly and instinctually soothed by a loving family member holding them, one who has an energetic attachment deriving from an irreplaceable soul and blood bond. It’s meant to be calmed by the impulses of the child’s curious heart, where self-directed play acts as a natural balm for healing and self-regulation. And the anxiety is meant to be regulated by the wild outdoors, by the loving arms of Gaia, Herself, whose instincts for connecting to and soothing the hurting child are far more mysterious and powerful than we understand. 

Given how much stress exists in daycares, because so many are complex systems with tense team dynamics, partly driven by unhealed and demanding personal issues, this kind of “organization” is not the setting for children to be growing through. Yes, many children have it much better at their daycare because of neglect or abuse at home. I understand this. But I’m pointing to a larger, systemic issue. 

We must return to the roots from which we came. And there is a trend for just this. You may notice a growing number of people leaving cities to live closer to nature. They want to simplify, create a garden, make things with their hands, know their neighbours, like we used to, or simply slow enough to do things like learn to play an instrument. Imagine bringing children into these slowed and connected possibilities, these life-skills, where learning is an easeful process, interwoven with the activities of day-to-day living, such as cooking and sewing, not separate from it. Imagine if education was not something to take our children to, but was simply a natural extension of living present, healthy, grounded, connected to nature and with family close by. Education is then just living.

Our current economic and social systems / pressures make this difficult because they make it hard to live simply, and thus simply live. Consensus-entrained patterned pressures to succeed, keep busy and over-structure keep families on a hamster wheel, detached from each other, and from their own heart. This collective, modern, “progressive” mindset is largely what drives the product-/ academic- — grade, rank, compare, report — agendas of education that leave so many, including teachers, burnt out and deprived of, and out of integrity with, their soul. 

More so, in our current social and economic arenas, it’s common for both parents to work. And we now live far away from our extended families, those tried and true networks of support, often because economics takes us away. Nuclear families have replaced the aunts, uncles, grandparents, and others, who once played a vital role in meeting the child’s attachment, playful and learning needs. Grandparents, especially, have sadly lost their role of mentoring children, sharing their wisdom, being a playmate, and being a key attachment figure. This is a tremendous loss to the child, grandparent and society at large. 

It grieves my heart to think of how many grandparents will never fulfill this important, life-giving purpose, never truly live out their role of wise, loving and playful elder.

With daycares, and school in general, replacing the family unit, children attach to peers instead of the needed adults. Attaching to the primary caregivers, in this case, the educators, is harder and less natural — often for both the child and adult. Teachers are distracted, overburdened with work and personal issues, and will often have their own unhealed attachment wounds playing out in their relationship with their students. This unavailability, along with the peer-orientation, creates all sorts of developmental challenges. At that impressionable age, it’s a mature, present adult the child needs to model herself after, not other immature children who are lost, confused, due, in part, to not having their attachment needs met. 

The whole system needs to be reconsidered, and that includes our economic, social systems, etc. They are not currently designed to support attachment. They are designed to support profit, and at the cost of the human spirit. Study the history of education and you will see just this. It was never about the children, their creativity, their desires, their soul. It was about power and greed. 

We are evolving past this fear-based consciousness, now. Despite the chaos in our world, we are a people rapidly waking up from this dream of suffering and separation that biologically and spiritually impacts children so deeply. We are a society longing for more, for we know, in our hearts, how much more children need. 

We only need to look to the roots to remember who we are and what matters, to the roots that must firmly be in place for children to grow from — to family, connection, play, laughter, love, creativity, being close to the land, to the magic and loving embrace of Mother Earth. 

This is our place of belonging, and thus our “school” of learning. 

I’ll end by saying this: a child with no education and lots of love will go much further than a child with plenty of education and little love. And what does our world need? Not more unhappy, unhealthy, addicted, disembodied intellects, but rather people in touch with their body and soul from having grown up in touch with — rooted in — the body and soul of their family and Mother Earth.

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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults

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4 Comments

  1. I can understand what you’re saying, but I see it differently. I imagine a world where children are being cared for in small family daycares. Daycares where the providers and other families all get close to each other, creating a kind of extended family that grows together and helps support one another. In a time when most parents work, and many families are far from their own extended families, family daycares have the potential of being just the right kind of support for children AND their parents. Supported parents can make a world of difference to a child! I think that this type of system, done well, could potentially be better for children than being cared for solely at home by family, but that’s just my thoughts.

    • Hi Suzanne, I look at what tribal societies have done for millennia. Look to Australia, Africa, etc. It’s only a recent invention what we’ve created here. You are addressing a need given the strains of a society dictated by economic pressures. But I am speaking to a reorganization of that system that is now crumbling. It already is reorganizing by the very nature of the crumbling we see around us, that will, in my opinion, only intensify further. To me it’s about returning to nature and thus doing what’s natural. Is putting children in a “centre” natural? I don’t believe it is. And how willing are those working at the centre willing to do their healing work? That’s a critical piece. Re your “hybrid”, for lack of a better word, suggestion, I can’t comment on it without the nuance. I felt called to write this article and so I did. Thanks for your comment!

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