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Mandy Callister

April, 2021

TimberNook is our weekly outdoor educational experience that all our learners attend on Fridays. This experience allows each learner to not only ground and connect with nature, but also to explore and process their emotions through play. 

There are three basic rules at TimberNook:

  1. Be kind
  2. Be respectful of others, nature, and the materials
  3. Always stay in the site of a counselor – in our case, guides

Our first several months attending TimberNook were a bit tumultuous as the learners navigated their new environment. Every week, play would quickly turn into power and control play with two teams, “Good Guys and Bad Guys”. The Bad Guys wanted to have control and power over the land by stealing beaded necklaces and creating a chase. There was thrill and running through the land for a short time, but eventually, the Good Guys grew frustrated and angry at the unfairness and intensity of play. At this point, someone from the Good Guys would approach a counselor or guide feeling unheard and disrespected by the Bad Guys. A short democratic meeting would take place on the spot. New agreements and negotiations would be made and play would continue.

This cycle of play kept repeating itself for months and was also showing up during recess at school. Many Town Halls brought up unkind play happening on the playground and at TimberNook. Each week progress was slowly being made towards respecting one another, but sometimes it didn’t feel like it was happening fast enough. 

During our 2nd month, a local psychologist spent a day observing. She was working with TimberNook and studying play in children. We just happened to be a part of her subjects of observation. Afterward, she did a presentation of her findings to the TimberNook staff for them to better understand and support the play at hand. What she found was a perfect match for understanding the dynamics of our group. 

Our learners were falling into two basic categories; there were learners playing out their need to control and dominate due to feelings of helplessness in real life (bad guys) and others who were scared and anxious feeling out of control and fearful of the world around them (good guys). It made perfect sense with the state of the world amidst a pandemic. They were each working through their emotions and recreating opportunities in play to explore them more deeply. There were tears and yelling at times and a wide range of feelings being expressed.

It was a beautiful opportunity to hold space for each one of them now that we better understood what was happening.

Within a week, we had a learner opt-out of attending TimberNook one week due to it bringing up too much anxiety. This learner came back on Monday and courageously shared that they didn’t feel safe at TimberNook. This opened up a 45-minute discussion with the entire tribe fully engaged. They all wanted things to change. Many ideas were offered and they settled on one that has proven to be the secret sauce in disarming the intense play. There are two zones now; The Peaceful Zone and the War Zone. You have to choose which zone you are in and you can only flip flop twice during the day. War cannot enter Peace.

Those who want to play War are free to do so at will, and now the Peaceful people feel safe and not under threat that they will be attacked. 

It took several months, but THEY did it! The intensity of play is no longer emotionally charged and the zones have organically shifted into snow and ice play yards. Their treaties have sustained over 3 months now.

We as guides are reminded to be patient and trust while providing space and support for each learner to move through their experiences. 

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