Urban Wild

There’s a place at the western edge of central Amsterdam that I’ve been watching for a few years. It’s a triangle of land, sandwiched between two diverging railway tracks, that used to be a manicured field, but which for the last three or four years has been, in a Dutch sort of way, left to run wild.If you go to this link and click on satellite, you’ll see what it used to look like. http://maps.google.nl/?q=loc:Overbrakerpad,+Amsterdam&sll=52.390222,4.865371

And this is what it looks like now. The “field” is now an unruly, overgrown “natural playground”, complete with tipis,

canals, passageways made from bent willow branches,

rafts

and bridges that are a challenge to cross,

as well as branches, sand and stones that kids can build things with, wherever they like. They’re told to NOT wear good clothes, and the idea is to let them run free, “ideally without the direct supervision of parents”.

Who wouldn’t go nuts?

While their parents sit around a campfire drinking coffee and eating cookies, kids tear about tirelessly, inventing games, and figuring out things like how to cross a pond AND stay dry – good old-fashioned play.

The kind of play one doesn’t see too often these days, or in the middle of a crowded European city (while applying for schools for my son earlier this year, I asked a principal if they had Phys Ed classes outside, and she told me proudly “why yes, once a year we have a sport day in the park”).

The kids were having a ball. They were kids from every segment of society: well-off and low-income, new immigrant and generations-old Dutch, and every single one of them was having the same experience: of discovery, excitement, self-challenge. Just watching them, watching how they were using this space, and the expressions of sheer delight and glee on their faces, nowhere could it be more obvious that kids need a kind of nature that isn’t cultivated.

And though one could argue that this place has been cultivated into an uncultivated nature,

and that it shouldn’t be necessary – that these places should (and sometimes do) just exist without effort – it’s great that, 10 minutes from the centre of Amsterdam, where it’s needed most, it’s there, and being used with gusto.