Pulling the legs off a spider

in Forest School, Theory and Ideas

“Play is a biological necessity that puts the child in the driving seat.”
The play theorist Bob Hughes inspired the recent Forest School Association conference with his words about play. There were challenges in that speech for us all too. He talked about when children’s play becomes sexualised and violent.  Play which makes us, the adult uncomfortable. He said that if we truly support the play process then we should allow it to ‘play’ out. That a child needs to have a range of experiences for their healthy development and the adult should not intervene with this process.  For me and for others at the conference this conundrum is manifested regularly in the woods when we see a child’s interaction with living things and when those thing are killed or harmed because of the interaction.


We all have our different levels of comfort with this. At the conference we asked people to reflect about those comfort levels. Chris Holland and I pretended to be children pulling the legs off a spider and killing it. People signalled their own personal comfort levels. I was fascina
ted but not surprised to see that there was no consensus. Some people would intervene almost straight away, others wouldn’t intervene even when we decided to get a second (imaginary) spider to kill. It is a very personal emotive response.

Why is it that the majority of people don’t like the thought of children killing things? When we asked a second question; “who engaged in this sort of behaviour when they were a child?” maybe a third of the room put their hands up. This in a room full of a couple of hundred people whose job and passion is to connect people with the natural world.

I remember back to my own childhood; I was a serial experimenter on the wildlife in my garden. I would stir up ant nests and throw in daffodil seeds. Watching gleefully as the ants rescued the seeds along with their eggs, only to get confused and dump them all out once the colony was safe.

I also remember watching a boy in my class pull the legs off a daddy long legs. I remember the confused fascination I felt. I also remember pitting beetles and centipedes against each other in improvised arenas and catching flies so I could see them being caught in a web and getting wrapped up in silk. Now I am a passionate advocate for natural environments and have been an environmental campaigner. Someone gave an example of their friend who as a child had been fascinated by killing spiders and flies. They grew up to become a forensic scientist.

If it is the untimely death of a spider or fly that gives us a level of discomfort, then are we exhibiting serious double standards? Inspect the number plate of the car you drive and you will find plenty of dead flies, moths and spiders. If you don’t drive, check your shoe! Only adherents to the Jain religion, who live simple lives, cover their mouths with a cloth and sweep the ground in front of them in order to avoid causing any harm to a living thing can claim any moral high ground in this respect. So if it is not the death of a creature that is the issue, then maybe the affective factor is the intention. The lack of empathy or compassion.

As Forest School practitioners we are also trying to balance our role of holding a space in which children can follow the content and intent of their actions with our responsibility to leave no trace and be mindful of our environmental impact.I love this quote by Bradley Miller: “Teaching a child not to step on a caterpillar is as valuable to the child, as it is to the caterpillar”.
Recently I found myself watching two boys search for the perfect stick for a swing they were building. They went to a line of trees and started to pull on a branch of a tree. I stepped in and told them the tree was a living thing that would be affected and I asked them to look for a suitable stick on a dead tree nearby. I interfered with their play process. I adulterated their experience.
Another child, who watched this interaction said to me later “You are like the Lorax, you speak for the trees.”

At the conference our friends Sally and Lisa from Forest School in Canada told us of their emotional conflict as they wove through a woodland with a group of children. “Let’s leave grandfather moss attached to his rock” they said. But across the lake they heard a noise. “Bdummmmmm ckkkkxxxxxxssshhhh.” The noise of the forest being blasted with explosives to make way for development.

Mike, a child minder in the woods near Bristol recalled reading the book ‘Superworm’ to the children he spends his time with. They are inspired to go digging for worms and it often goes badly for the worms who don’t survive the experience. But what of those children, what connection have they developed? They may learn to understand their power, their ability to end a life or to hold that life in their hand gently. I like to think of those dead worms as ambassadors, that enable children to make those connections with themselves and with the natural environment. We don’t care for what we do not love, but we can not love that we do not know.

So what’s the answer? Which do we prioritise, the learning and play process of the child or the life processes in the environment? Which do you hold as most important? How do your observations inform your reflections?

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