In praise of nothing
by Chris Packe, WildWise instructor
There is a big difference between doing nothing and being bored. Being bored is a judgement you make on yourself. Doing Nothing is a glorious state of being. Now, there is nothing wrong with Activities. There is nothing wrong with camps. I ran several for WildWise over August – Wolf Pack, Forest Rangers Camp, Dangerous Weekend for Boys, and then there was the Family Camp. Camps are great. But over the years I can’t help noticing that the juicy, golden bits of camps are the bits in the cracks, between Activities. The bits where I’m not around, in other words.
I imagine, when kids hear grown-ups spew out phrases like ‘Holding Space for Children’, they think that this is simply another occurrence of grown-ups saying stupid stuff.
If I transport myself back to 10-year-old me, then ‘Holding Space’ would mean providing food, washing up the stuff I made dirty, sticking on plasters if I’m bleeding too much and otherwise generally getting out of the way. Certainly not being around and talking to me.
This sort of Space that kids seem to want is readily available away from Dartmoor camps – it’s in any garden or nearby field, or patch of dirt. Or perhaps anywhere where there is another mucky 10-year-old to collaborate with. This fact is easy to disregard.
In the past, when seized by the anxious urge to Schedule Activities for my children, I have sometimes managed to realise that I am just doing it because I can’t imagine what they would otherwise do all summer. A lapse in imagination is maybe what this is, or a lapse in memory. It’s me forgetting who I was 33 years ago, when I knew full well that I could spend the summer kicking a stone around. Or digging a hole. Not to make a well, or a foundation – just to dig a hole. I might find a stone in the hole, which would mean my afternoon’s sorted. Unless I decide to fill the hole with water. All of this in the welcome absence of some oversized alien telling me what a good hole I dug and asking what I’m going to do next.
So I experimented a bit on those WildWise camps this summer, and widened the gaps between Activities, and hid in the bracken to watch what went on. And what do you know, they started digging holes and kicking stones. Or forming gangs. And when I did a bit more research, I found that these were the things that some of the children were telling their parents about on the way home. If the parents were lucky that is – because, for a youngster, the ancient and proper response to a grown-up asking what they did is: “Nothing”. And to really mean it though.
When an adult walks past a teenager who has enough sense to sit slack-jawed and immobile, there is often a pull to interfere. This kid is practically meditating, which is all the rage these days, but we can’t leave them alone. Maybe because we grown-ups can’t do it, we won’t let them, like an irritating reformed smoker. I worry that some day we might lose the sacred art of Doing Nothing. This lad has found a stick and is Doing Nothing. Note the smile.
These days, as well as about Meditation and Holding Space, there’s a lot of Talk, and even a bunch of Science, about Nature Connection. For grown-ups, it’s an invitation to meddle. For kids, perhaps what it means is that by digging a hole and filling it with water, and then forgetting about what they did by the time evening comes, they are getting it absolutely right. I’m sure that’s what beetles and wrens do, and they are famous for their high levels of Nature Connection.
So let’s send our kids to camps, especially WildWise ones! Let’s do it simply because it’s a really fun thing to do, full of amazing activities and glorious gaps and gangs, all of which is OK to immediately forget about.
But let’s not forget that when the appetiser of the canoe trip or bushcraft week is over, the grand and delicious main course is always there and it never runs out:
Grab a stick, scrape out a hole. It might rain in it. Or you might find a stone to kick around.