A New Frontier – Neighbourhood Nature Play

As a mother I have been encouraging outdoor play with our children and within a small playgroup I facilitate for quite sometime. My interest and understanding of the many benefits of outdoor free play and time spent in nature is nothing new. Increasing our time outdoors and really committing to making conscious play choices has changed our life in many small and wonderful ways. From breaking the cycle of screen over-use, to ensuring our little girls spend at least 3 hours of each and every day outside. The changes have been gradual and some challenging, but most of all they have been worth it.

Our increased commitment as a family to unstructured outdoor play has fostered a growing connection to our ‘country’, connecting our children to the local area, it's habitats and resources. From hiking through local state forests to loose parts play in the backyard, many dimensions of nature play have erupted into our life and we have welcomed and enjoyed every moment.

A New Frontier

Once upon a time our local neighbourhoods would have been the very first frontier to be conquered. A place where so many of our earliest lessons were learnt and memories made. Relationships were built here, lifelong friendships forged, and band-aids dished out by the dozen.

Nowdays, this is one frontier I have yet to break into; the complex and often elusive sense of connection and community within our own little neighbourhood.

I am certain that this is not the case within all neighbourhoods. I often hear uplifting tales of other streets connecting with one another and small neighbourhood groups around the place forming a very connected sense of community, however this is not the case where we live and I am sure I am not alone.

For our little corner of suburbia, I can often be found thinking, "Where are all the children hiding? Where are the loud roars of laughter and the chitter chatter of little voices?". I know that behind the 6-foot picket fences and roller doors there are other children living near by. Don’t get me wrong, we know all of our bordering neighbours and a few slightly further down the road and around the bend, but there are families within our area I have yet to meet.

As far as our neighbours and neighbourhood goes, it seems we only see others passing by through the car windows with a shy wave, or locking eyes for a matter of only moments as the garage door closes silently down behind the SUV.

As is a commonality of many neighbourhoods and family lives these days, families seem so busy with organised sports, school activities and jam-packed weekends.

In our leafy and well laid out suburb in Townsville, there are an abundance of pathways, small open park areas spotted along every second street corner. A cluster of small man-made lakes bordering on a large well-kept cricket ground, and all wrapped in a web of 60km p/h or less roads. It is hardly high risk traffic laden mayhem, and yet, where are the kids out playing? Riding their bikes or scooters and making tee-pees under the trees of the parkland with gumtree branches?

Less time seems spent in unstructured free play, and less time exploring local neighbourhoods.

It seems that like most other neighbourhoods in urban cities or towns, it has become common to spend more time indoors. Friends are made at school or kindergarten, and not so much on the nature strip outside the front doors of our homes.

Due to many well researched and documented parental concerns ranging from stranger danger to traffic risks, kids don’t seem to roam as free, or play as autonomously as they used to. At this time, our girls (2yo and 5yo) have a roaming radius that is still fairly limited. It does however include our front lawn, popping next door to ask our neighbour's daughter if she would like to play, as well as frequent visits to local parkland areas and daily scoots/rides around the block. We have noticed however that we rarely pass other families out and about, and therefore our opportunities to mingle and connect have been very limited.

Improving Community Connection

So this brought me to thinking about how I could improve our community connection and engage with other families in our neighbourhood. I feel like a sense of community and connection does not always happen of its own accord, and sometimes it just doesn’t feel right to march up to a stranger's front door and invite ourselves into their lives. So a few months ago I sat down and brainstormed ideas for how to reach out to our neighbours and try to connect.

Some of the things I considered were:

  • Ideas that would be inviting, yet also selective so that those who simply want to be left alone won't be imposed upon and can choose not to participate?
  • What activity would be age indiscriminate and encourage young and old to step out their front door and say g’day?
  • What do children need within a community or neighbourhood to feel safe, protected, and cared for?
  • What does a ‘village’ look like in today's world?
  • How/what could I arrange with minimal effort/cost, given we are a family with just as many time and financial commitments as other young families?

To answer some of my own questions: A village is not just families or relatives, but made up of the wisdom and voices of both young and old. An environment where if my daughter stacks her bike two blocks away, somewhere nearby is an adult who will not only help her, but know where her parents are to let us know or to bring her safely home.

A community is not just a ruckus of wildlings roaming about unsupervised, but that sense of neighbourhood watch. The old tin can phone system, whereby ‘Bob's’ mother knows exactly what mischief he has been up to before he returns home at sundown.

I wondered about how I could kick-start a movement within my neighbourhood to bring back a sense of this ‘village’ life or just simply start building bridges to help bring a sense of community to our area. I wanted to remove a few social barriers that somehow seem to have worked their way into our lives without us noticing.

My solution? Well what would be more welcoming and inviting than a good old sausage sizzle and neighbourhood ‘backyard style’ cricket match? Open to all ages and all demographics. A casual meet and greet opportunity for the neighbourhood. An outdoor activity that is casual and inviting, suitable for young, old and supporters from the sidelines.

So the idea was born and a week later I had printed off and hand delivered 200 flyers, introducing myself and our little family to our neighbours and inviting them to play.

Fishtail/Woodlake Inaugural Neighbourhood Cricket Match Was Born

All of this really was not too difficult at all, and was a simple idea that most people could pull off without much effort. Apart from the flyers printed at my home computer, a few trays of sausages and a few loaves of bread, it cost nothing more than a little time and the gumption to make it happen. Fast forward two weeks and the day arrived. It was Sunday 14th of October and my very patient and obliging husband rolled our old and very cumbersome BBQ 200 metres down the street towards the park. My two daughters proudly helped me hang up our homemade banner at the park.

So how did the match day go?

Before I queue the streamers and balloons to be released from the ceiling I must be completely honest. Our community cricket match was not all sunshine and rainbows. To be honest, I felt a little disappointed by the turn out. (Yes, an honest dose of reality and no sugar coating here).

After delivering 200+ flyers, we had just seven families attend (four who were our immediate neighbours and who we already know to various degrees, and three families we have never met). Not such a great outcome given 200 homes were invited.

However, stepping back and removing my rose tinted glasses I can still reflect positively and I am glad we gave it a try. With a deep breath I remind myself that sometimes it takes time to build up numbers, and that the connection and participation I was hoping for was never going to happen overnight.

All in all we had 11 children attend - some with parents, some without. Two older couples who’s families had flown the nest but who were happy to have an opportunity to connect with their neighbours the old fashioned way. And of the 11 children, four or five had never met before, and therefore new relationships were formed and from all reports those who did attend had fun.

Collectively the group were glad the event was arranged and most conveyed a hope that we try again in the months to come. Hopefully some of those who drove by and saw us out in the park will drum up the courage to participate next time.

There is hope yet, and I can honestly say that despite the initial disappointment, I honestly reflect with gratitude that we found out the names of some of the strangers with whom we have previously waved to throughout the years but never known. Best of all we got outside in the sunshine and had fun - and all for a few snags, a little bit of well spent time and a drive to connect.

I would share with others that although it was not a picture perfect outcome, and the realities of building community were certainly brought home, it has only served to inspire me to try again, try something new, and continue to strive for connection within our community. All in all, I would do it again in a heartbeat.

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