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Forts, Swings & Dykes

"When I see birches bend to the left and right … I like to think some boy's been swinging in them."

Robert Frost



One of the dilemmas facing parents and teachers who take children into parks and wilderness is whether or not they should prevent the building of forts, swings and dykes. Drop the average kid in a campsite and within an hour you will likely have one of each.

Think like a biologist and the fort constitutes destruction of vegetation, and possibly reduced seed production, the dyke will result in sedimentation or obstruction and the swing will interfere with wildlife while damaging the bark. But think like a social scientist and the same three activities might be viewed as sheer inspiration, the seeds of creativity. How does one manage the dichotomy?

Richard Louv (2005) says that unlike television, nature doesn't steal time, it amplifies it. Given the chance a child will bring her confusion to the woods and wash it in the creek, to emerge revived.

Nature shouldn't be a glass house: we can't say to a child, it's fine to hike here like an adult but you can't play here. Both the social and the biological aspects need to be considered, and the outcome might vary. Even the most ardent child-friendly scientist will agree that it's right to prevent kids from chasing an endangered Snowy Plover from her nest.

The campgrounds in the San Rafael Wilderness enjoy good visitation. In time spent there, a survival-type shelter popped up at one site and a fairly extensive dyke across the river at Coldwater. Their presence offers opportunity for discussion.


What if two brothers build an overnight shelter from dead wood lying around camp, and pile it up the next morning? No harm is done. Leaders should simply consider that the next hiking party to arrive would be looking for a natural camp with an unspoiled ambience.

Is the dyke problematic? It dams water for backpackers in the dry season, but this is habitat for an endangered species, the Red-Legged Frog. While it's a nice project for kids, a biologist may think otherwise. The same activity could perhaps be enjoyed on a smaller scale in a rivulet that is easily cleared.

A few sycamore trees along El Capitan Creek have rope swings hanging from them. It's no fun to see tie-downs swinging from a branch, but most people won't have a problem with one good rope hanging over the creek. Perhaps we can show leniency to children who seldom leave the confines of an apartment, while teaching a respect for the balance and the bylaws.

In a world where everything can be Googled and television demotes life to a series of programs, a larger-than-Google world awaits a child along the banks of the nearest creek. Worthy of wonder, the kid who engages that world by swinging from a tree, or playing engineer with a few rocks is likely to become more connected to place than most, and may well be a future protector of that place. It is also easy enough to distinguish between play and delinquency.