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12 Images That Prove The Woods Are A Kid’s Best Playground

For the last 10 years Dennis DeHart, a professor of photography at Washington State University, has showed his boys Emmit and Asher why the great outdoors is so great. The result was a series called “At Play“, an artistic meditation on the importance of free play in nature. DeHart says that he owes a lot to his “mountain man” grandfather, who first got him out of the house and into the woods, and he wanted to pass that tradition along to his kids. Below he talks about a few of his favorite photos from the last few years, and what happens when you add a little dirt and water (and the odd Luchador mask) to childhood.

Fire and Sticks, Orcas Island, Washington StateFire and Sticks, Orcas Island, Washington StateDennis DeHart

“The image was made in the front yard of our friend’s house during an afternoon get together. Fire and sticks have continually been a source of fascination for my 2 boys.”

The Farm, SummerTown, TennesseeThe Farm, Summertown, TennesseeDennis DeHart

“At the time, I mostly took ‘snapshots’ of my family with a digital camera. I took this picture while I was taking formal portraits of residents at the Farm for another project. This is perhaps the first image I made that eventually would become ‘At Play.'”

Nana's Trail, Mt. Pickets, Orcas IslandNana’s Trail, Mt. Pickets, Orcas IslandDennis DeHart

“This photo was made in the semi-mountainous terrain of Orcas Island called Mt. Pickett. The trail is next to Moran State Park and is the path that sons take in order to visit their Nana.”

Circle, Moscow, IdahoCircle, Moscow, IdahoDennis DeHart

“Water play is something all children love to do, and something we have encouraged them to do since infancy. The image was made during a play date in our backyard. When we arrived at the house, the backyard was being redone. It offered a prime opportunity for my sons to grab a garden hose and make a muddy mess.”

Reservoir, Columbia Basin Wildlife Area, WashingtonReservoir: Columbia Basin Wildlife Area, WashingtonDennis DeHart

“The photograph was taken while camping in the Columbia Basin Wildlife Area. The reservoir offers habitat for numerous wetland dependent wildlife species, such as migrating waterfowl and shorebirds. The reservoir was a perfect place to introduce my sons, and their Seattle cousins, to the wildness of desert habitat.”

Lookout, Deer Harbor, Orcas IslandLookout: Deer Harbor, Orcas IslandDennis DeHart

“Most of Orcas Island’s beaches are privately owned. The image was taken while visiting friends at their home near Deer Harbor. What you don’t see are my sons looking at a very small island in front of them with a pirate flag flying at full mast.”

Boy and Duck, Palouse Falls, WashingtonBoy and Duck: Palouse Falls, WashingtonDennis DeHart

“While at the bottom of the 198-foot tall Palouse Falls, my son found this plastic decoy duck, which he carried all the way back to the car. Later, while playing dress up one morning, he opted to pose with the duck.”

Old Growth, Oregon Coast near Newport, OregonOld Growth: Oregon Coast near Newport, OregonDennis DeHart

“I’m interested in a collaborative in-between when making portraits; Meaning I neither totally direct nor leave the images to chance. I like how my son Emmit is making direct eye contact with the camera in this photo while Asher appears to be striking a pose. The image speaks to me about their personalities, while taking me back to my childhood, including wandering through old growth forests on the Oregon Coast.”

Wounded, Moscow, IdahoWounded: Moscow, IdahoDennis DeHart

“This is the increasingly performative side of ‘At Play.’ It is inherently still play, but a kind of performance is developing in both the way I approach making the pictures, as well as the way my sons have continued to adapt, accommodate, and ultimately contribute to the photograph.”

Horse and Rider, Troy, IdahoHorse and Rider: Troy, IdahoDennis DeHart

“A love for animals has always been a part of my younger son’s narrative. The reverence and respect evolved while he was learning to ride horses. There is nothing like managing a 2000-pound horse as a 9-year-old, to learn about the power of nature.”

Sandman, Snake River, WashingtonSandman: Snake River, WashingtonDennis DeHart

“Rivers make up a significant part of the region and play a vital role in energy and recreation. The photograph was made on a hot summer day in the Snake River, near Asotin, Washington. At one point, both my sons stripped off their clothes, rolled around in the sand and swam naked in the river. ”

Wrestler, Moscow, IdahoWrestler: Moscow, IdahoDennis DeHart

“Spontaneity and moments of humor play an increasing role in more recent photographs for ‘At Play.’ Asher here is wearing a Mexican wrestling mask that he brought back from Zihuatanejo, Mexico.”