There are only a few rules at Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s Play Rangers nature playgroups: have fun and try not to hurt yourself or anyone else. Beyond that, kids are encouraged to get dirty, go wild and play hard.
“The creativity is astounding,” said organizer Meghan Goldman. “I’m learning a lot about play.”
The Play Rangers meetups, held twice a month at LWC’s base at Morven Park in Leesburg, are open to kids 12 and under and focus on unstructured play in nature, encouraging kids to self-direct while nudging parents to get a little more hands-off.
Goldman, a western Loudoun native, launched the program with LWC support after returning to Loudoun from Washington state with her family. She was looking for activities for her sons, now 8 and 11, and was disappointed at the lack of outdoor opportunities compared to the West Coast, even in Loudoun’s rural spaces.
“There’s a lot of outdoor recreational activities [in Washington] for everyone including kids, and I expected moving back to such a wealthy area that we’d have plenty of opportunities to do the same,” Goldman said.
Goldman decided to create the kind of experience she was missing and convinced Leesburg-based Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy to sponsor the meetups which she runs as a volunteer. The program started in April 2019 with playdates on the first and third Thursdays of each month—rain or shine.
“I said remember when you were a child and you dug in the dirt and played outside for hours, well no one does that anymore,” Goldman said.
On a mild Thursday just after New Year’s, Goldman was dressed in a dark green Carhartt farm suit and ready to play. Her role is to facilitate rather than instruct, she noted.
“The role is less of a teacher or a guide and more of a lifeguard,” she said. “If you think of yourself like a lifeguard at a swimming pool, you’ll intervene only if necessary.”
Goldman says meetups range widely in number and age of participants, depending on the day, and last week there were lots of newbies checking out the program.
Sarah Kabealo brought her sons Charlie, 6, and Henry, almost 3. Kabealo lives within walking distance of Morven Park but said her boys are usually in school when the meetups happen, so they took advantage of winter break to check it out. Charlie jumped right in to building a dam at the small creek near LWC’s headquarters while Henry focused on finding the best and shiniest rocks.
Another first-timer, Sarah Wang of Leesburg brought Abigail, 11 months, and Nathaniel, almost 3. And Abby Himes traveled from Prince William County with her toddler son Cooper.
“I’m always looking for true loose-parts, free play stuff,” Wang said. “We need more of that in our life.”
The weekday meetups often skew younger, Goldman said, but she’s looking to start a monthly weekend Mud Club that might attract older children. She said she loves seeing the natural interactions among older and younger kids.
“The quality of play goes up tenfold with the older kids,” Goldman said. “Once there are mixed age groups, the dynamics are really amazing.”
At a Sunday afternoon playdate co-hosted by the Purcellville Parks and Recreation Advisory Board in late December, older elementary and middle school kids played happily in the rain at the Chapman DeMary Trail. Goldman, who homeschools her sons, has also hosted homeschool groups at the Morven Park meetups and wants to do more of that in 2020.
For Goldman, there’s often a little deprogramming involved as kids realize they don’t have to ask permission to play in a particular area or use the tools and materials she has on hand. The idea is to let kids get into the flow of play, including all of the risk taking, decision-making and independence involved. This means getting dirty and following their instincts.
“Similar to the way an adult would get in the flow with art or music, kids get in the flow with play,” Goldman said. “Sometimes parents are like, ‘We don’t throw rocks,’ and I’m like, ‘Actually, we do!’”
The Play Ranger meetups can mean a shift in perspective for 21st century parents, too.
“We’re also trying to help teach parents that it’s OK to back away and let [kids] get in the flow. A lot of people don’t understand the importance of play. It’s always something that’s happened naturally, and now that it’s starting to be taken over by other forces, play deprivation is starting to impact kids’ physical development—social, emotional, cognitive, everything.”
Goldman grew up near Waterford and graduated from Loudoun Valley High School. With an undergraduate degree in math and physics, she worked as an engineer at commercial nuclear power plants in eastern Washington before returning to Loudoun. Goldman says her STEM background has helped crystallize the importance of free play and experimentation.
“There’s such a push for STEM education. … As someone with a scientific background and training, I see there’s so much value in [play],” she said. “They’re experimenting, they’re learning about gravity, cause and effect, hypothesis—all of the things that people are promoting through a lot of these adult-led enrichment activities that are marketed to parents. But there’s no one marketing hanging out outside in the mud, and so parents don’t always see the value in that. I think it’s really important.”
Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy’s Play Rangers Play Groups take place on the first and third Thursdays of each month from 10 a.m. to noon at the Gatehouse at Morven Park in Leesburg. The meetups are free and open to children 12 and under and their parents. For more information, go to loudounwildlife.org.