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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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.