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Among Big Things Little Things Grow: An ode to trees – and games to play in them

We live on a blue planet, yes, but also a planet of trees. And as we approach National Tree Day it’s a fitting moment to remember the extraordinary role the 60,000 species of trees that grace every continent and corner of the globe (except the polar regions, parking lots, and some misconceived playgrounds) play in our life, and the lives of children.

Trees are as magnificent as they are prolific. With their roots in the earth and their branches in the sky, trees harvest sunlight, purify air, turn sand to soil, shelter life, create climate, and provide fuel for fire. They can live to be more than 9,000 years old and they range in height from the 115m tall redwoods of north America’s west coast, to the dwarf willow at just 6cm tall.

In WA we are blessed with the soaring Karri, the fragrant peppermint tree, sandalwood and jam wood, the mighty jarrah, the impenetrably hard wandoo, the beautiful flowering banksias, the whispering sheoaks, the marri tree that provided medicinal treatments to Noongar families, and so many more.  

And according to research they are neither mute nor devoid of thought. They communicate by releasing chemicals into the air, through electric impulses through their roots, and through fungal networks. They are known to sustain the stumps of felled neighbours for hundreds of years by feeding them water and nutrients. (Find more in Peter Wohlleben best selling book The Hidden Life of Trees.)

Trees feature in religions and cultures all over the planet. The Sacred Fig is the oldest known human-planted tree. A sapling from the Bodhi Tree under which the Budha became enlightened, the Sacred Fig was planted nearly 300 years before the birth of Christ. There is the Tree of Life, the sacred oak coves of Celts, and the olive branch of peace, the Christmas tree, and the family tree to name a few.

Trees feed us with fruit and provide us with timber to build and warm our houses. We use their wood to fashion chairs and tables and to make utensils, tools, toys, cots and coffins.

So, when your child looks up at a tree and wants to climb it, know that it is not a random request. They come from a very long line of tree climbers. And being drawn to trees is something deeply felt from our first moments of life to our last. It starts from the moment we are first placed on a dappled blanket and allowed to reach up at the dance of shapes and shadows, to smell the damp earth, and to be settled by the rustle and song above.

Trees are, among so many things, also the ultimate play structure. At once climbing gym, shade canopy, provider of loose parts, and perhaps the greatest call to a child’s imagination beyond the human voice.

With all of that in mind, we thought we’d share a few thoughts on things to let your kid do in a tree. But as always, this is just the starting line. Your kid, with time and permission, will find so much more.

Climb, and climb again

Teach your kid to climb safely. Always keep three points of contact - two hands, one foot, etc. Never trust your weight to a limb thinner than your arm. Listen to your fear. If your inner climber says it isn’t safe, it isn’t – so start where you are comfortable and move from there when you are ready.

Swing from a branch

Just swing by your hands, or add a knotted rope, a tyre, or a wooden swing

Lie underneath a tree on a blanket or on the ground, read a book, or tell a story, watch the leaves and the birds

This is something you should do at every age.

Fall asleep in a hammock slung between two trees

Hammocks are great on camping trips. There are also hammock tents, or you can just add a mosquito net or light tarp, if you want to level up and sleep all night held up by trees.

Build a platform or a tree house

Be careful not to damage the tree. Remember there is a thin living membrane that keeps the whole tree alive by ferrying nutrients and water up and down just under the bark.

Pick fruit from a tree and eat it outdoors

Seeing, touching, and smelling where food comes from, and then tasting it, is a great way to get kids to try new foods. If you don’t have your own fruit tree, try Googling local orchards and see if they do ‘self-pick’.

Spend a day in a forest

Remind your kid that these are living things, that they communicate with and support each other.

Tree hug game

Go somewhere with lots of trees close together (park, forest, that spot at the edge of the school). Blindfold one of the players and have another player lead them (carefully) to a tree. The blindfolded player hugs the tree and uses all their senses to try and remember “their tree”. Their partner then leads them, still blindfolded, aware from their tree. The tree hugger then has their blindfold removed and they try and find their tree.

Build a cubby around a tree, or suspend one from a branch

This can be as simple as leaning sticks up against a trunk, or handing a sheet or tarp over a low hanging branch.

Level up by making a bell tent by:

  1. Tie a rope to a branch and let it hang down to 1m-1.5m from the ground
  2. Get a sheet or tarp and bunch up a handful of it right in its middle
  3. Tie your rope to the bunched-up sheet (using a clove hitch or similar knot)
  4. Tie short pieces of rope to the corners of the sheet using the same bunching method
  5. Tie loops in the end of the short ropes and use tent pegs to peg them to the ground

Plant a tree

Do this at your house if you can so you can watch it grow, or find a local tree planting initiative in a park or conservation reserve. Use this as an opportunity to learn about some of the amazing tree species that call WA home, and to discuss how our actions impact the world around us into the future.

Want some inspiration for play in trees?  Check out these great Nature Passport app activities (for iPhone, Android and now web-based)

Plant Pose (Launch Pack)
Texture Tag (Launch Pack)
Tree Tracker (Launch Pack)
What’s that Scent (Launch Pack)
Leaf Printing (Nature Painter Pack)
Bark Treasure Map (Nature Painter Pack)
Nature Paint Brushes (Nature Painter Pack)
Leaf Collector (Everyday Explorer Pack)
The Friendly Stick (Everyday Explorer Pack)
Invent a Scent (Hone Your Senses Pack)

Learn more about the Nature Passport app

Further resources and links:

Getting involved in National Tree Day
Sabrina Hahn’s top 10 climbing trees
The Hidden Life of Trees
Trees Adventure Parks in WA

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