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4 Things Your Kids Won't Learn Playing Baseball

Photograph by Twenty20

Last Sunday we had a glorious day of nothing. No games, no parties, no pre-planned play dates. No responsibilities. The sun was warm and the scent of spring filled the air. Naturally, we found our way to the backyard as early as possible (as in, still wearing jammies). Truly, it was one of those magical childhood mornings when no plans leads to endless wonder… right in the backyard.

It began with mud pies. The kids grabbed a hose to fill buckets of water to care for our freshly planted tomatoes and peppers, but they didn't stop at watering the plants. Upon spilling some of the water, one of them discovered that's it's easy to create mud, even in our dry Southern California climate. They kneaded the mud to create cakes and pies, and added sticks and flower petals found in the yard. Then things got interesting.

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One of them thought it might be fun to see if mud sticks to the fence, so they started throwing mud balls. The other wondered if muddy handprints would stick around, so they covered their hands in dripping mud and made prints along the fence (yes, those handprints stick around). They jumped in the mud puddle. They squished their toes in it, covered their hands and arms in it, and they even rubbed some of their faces, you know, like a spa. For three hours, they investigated mud, plants and butterflies in our postage stamp of a backyard. They were happy.

When kids have the opportunity to play outside without a plan and without a parent telling them what to play and how to play it, they develop better social interaction skills.

Nature play has many benefits for kids of all ages, and yet it is under-utilized these days. Kids are over-scheduled, enrolled in far too many adult-directed activities and lack time to simply get out and play.

When I speak to groups of parents, I always hear a similar refrain: My child is outside on the soccer field. Mine lives on the baseball diamond. Mine only plays outdoor sports. Organized sports can be great, but make no mistake: Organized sports are not the same as unstructured play in nature. In organized sports, children are guided by adults and following a specific routine. In nature play, kids are in charge. Curiosity takes center stage as kids pose questions and investigate the answers.

Research shows that children who enjoy nature play are happier, healthier and have lower stress levels. The benefits don't stop there. Check out these reasons to drop the baseball bat and get into nature, instead:

1. Kids develop creative problem-solving skills

When kids play in nature, they encounter obstacles and questions. How can we get over that log in the path? Is this stream too deep? Should I go over, around or through that giant puddle? During unstructured outdoor play, kids engage with their surroundings and figure out how to solve problems along the way.

They also learn to work together. When my kids were wandering through the woods last fall, they decided to attempt to swing from a vine. They stood together on a large rock discussing the best way to do this and then came up with a plan. Together, they solved the problem of how to reach, hold and swing from the hanging vine.

2. Kids have better social skills

We live in a world that runs on instant gratification and the easy button is everywhere. Even playdates, once the pinnacle of free play, are fairly scripted these days with craft projects that come from a box and baking projects that require very little baking.

When kids have the opportunity to play outside without a plan and without a parent telling them what to play and how to play it, they develop better social interaction skills. Not only do they learn to work through problems together, but they also learn assertive communication, give and take, listening skills and empathy.

3. Kids develop self-regulation skills

You know that feeling you get when you're losing your patience and you just need to step outside and take a deep breath to calm yourself? That's self-regulation. The ability to recognize your feelings and take steps to calm yourself is the definition of self-regulation. More often than not, simply stepping outside into a natural environment calms the senses and helps people work through their emotions.

Lack of sufficient outdoor play not only puts our kids at risk for obesity, but it also contributes to higher stress levels, which can result in anxiety and/or depression.

The same goes for kids, but we don't necessarily give them the opportunity to do that. When kids act up in school, they are generally sent to another area of the classroom. At home, they get sent to their rooms. These strategies are Band-Aids that fall off the moment the incident is over.

With regular nature play, kids learn to self-regulate. They learn, for example, that stomping their feet in the dirt helps release negative emotions or that deep breathing outside can decrease anxious feelings. They learn that squeezing mud in their hands releases pent-up frustration and that jumping rope gets their energy out.

4. Kids are more invested in healthy eating

I don't have a huge yard, and I certainly don't have room for a full vegetable garden, but we do plant a few vegetables and some herbs every spring. Some are in pots, and some go directly into the ground. The kids love it.

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Kids are more likely to try new fruits and vegetables and make healthy choices when they have some choice in the matter and when they grow their own food. You don't have to plant a huge garden to help your kids connect with healthy eating, you just need to plant a few things and teach them how to care for them.

Lack of sufficient outdoor play not only puts our kids at risk for obesity, but it also contributes to higher stress levels, which can result in anxiety and/or depression. It's time to step away from adult-directed activities and remember that kids have their right to play—outside and on their own terms—every single day.

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