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Evolving To Early Childhood Attachment And Outdoor Play

By Vince Gowmon

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 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 processes—specifically those of familial attachment and self-directed play—have been replaced with products and procedures 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, 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. Intimate contact with nature, 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 hormoneand antibiotic-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 grassroots—organic sources of outdoor play and primary attachment—is, in my humble opinion, not the education children need. Although 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 necessary 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 sets, but underneath there 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, 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 than their home life 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, and know their neighbors, like we used to— or simply slow down 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. Imagine if education was not something to take our children to, but was simply a natural extension of living present, healthy, grounded, and connected to nature, with family close by. Education, then, is just living.

Our current economic and social systems and 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 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 has taken 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, the 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 daycare and school replacing the family unit, children attach to peers instead of 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 and confused, due in part to not having their own attachment needs met.

The whole system needs to be reconsidered, including our economic and social systems. 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, or 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, and to the magic and loving embrace of Mother Earth. This is our place of belonging, and therefore our “school” of learning.

I’ll end by saying this: A child with no education and a lot 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 bodies and souls from having grown up in touch with—rooted in—the bodies and souls of their families and Mother Earth.

The Consequences of Childhood Obedience

It’s safe to say that, when you were a child, your primary caregivers spent far more time telling you what to believe and do than asking you what you believe, feel, and want to do. In my time asking thousands of people about this, the general answer, not surprisingly, was that approximately 90 percent of their childhood experience was adults teaching, directing, or molding them, and a mere 10 percent was adults being curious about who they were, what they felt, and what their needs and desires were.

The consequence of this is children growing into adults who have an external locus of control, meaning one’s sense of self and life is externally, rather than internally, defined. Not surprisingly, this imbalance towards outward orientation (which leads to being extrinsically motivated) correlates to depression and anxiety.

The ubiquity of these early life experiences creates a populace quite willing to see things through the eyes of others, and to believe what they are told—without question, without critically thinking, and without hearing or heeding the voice of intuition that says, “Wait a second…”

On a mass scale, this is what is happening now. The majority believes what they are being told by the media and consensus thinking because they have been conditioned to give their power away to external authorities. They do so without knowing they are doing this, let alone why!

How far do people unwilling to self-reflect, heal, and feel, who generally struggle to trust their intuition, go beyond that 10 percent threshold? How much do they question and challenge the status quo when, as children, their worth, safety, and often survival depended on being agreeable and fitting in? When, as adults, they are likely terrified of being different, standing out, or disappointing others?

I cannot state this strongly enough: The negative consequences of this chronic blind obedience are far-reaching.