Volume 25 Issue 1, Winter 2020
by Meghan Goldman, Youth and Family Program Coordinator
Until recently, outdoor play was a central part of almost everyone’s childhood. Whether it was playing games in the street, playing pretend in overgrown bushes, or playing explorer in the woods, this unstructured and make-it-up-as-you-go play was a staple of our childhood.
Today, with widespread concerns about safety and the ever-increasing number of “enrichment” activities for children, outdoor free play is quickly vanishing from the lives of most U.S. children. This dramatic shift is having a significant impact on children, but it’s also a slow-moving crisis for the conservation movement.
When it comes to the effect that nature play has on child development, the evidence is astounding. Research shows that the diverse and dynamic environment of outdoor natural spaces is one of the best for healthy child development, offering children stimulation in all their developmental domains. This stimulation lays the foundation for acquiring new skills and abilities, and is critical to healthy development. Think of the sensory experiences of feeling the wind blow, walking on uneven surfaces, and collecting rocks from a stream. Without experiences like these, children are no longer able to develop their cognitive, physical, or creative abilities as quickly or as easily as they once did.
In addition to the effect on individual child development, the loss of nature play is also a threat to the future of the conservation movement. Research from around the globe shows that nature play in childhood is the single most common influence in forming a lifelong commitment to conservation values. When children play in a wild space day after day, they form an emotional connection with that place. Children today aren’t getting the chance to form this personal attachment with natural spaces, even though they are learning impressive amounts of ecology facts through formal education. Since conservation is fundamentally about behaviors, and research shows that human behaviors are driven more by emotions than by knowledge, getting children to personally connect with nature is essential.
At Loudoun Wildlife Conservancy, we’ve been working hard to address this issue, to intentionally restore opportunities for local children to have unstructured play in nature. But as you might expect, it’s not easy to have a structured program that’s focused on promoting frequent unstructured activities. We’ve found that a healthy approach includes planning for three things: the right kind of place, the right kind of play, and the right kind of re-play.
The right kind of place for nature play is land that isn’t too protected, and is wild in a child’s eyes. While adults may think of the wild as being found only in places like wildlife sanctuaries or national parks, children’s worlds are tiny, and to a child the wild can be as simple as an overgrown portion of the backyard. It’s important to remember as well that kids need to be free to interact with the land by doing things like digging holes, catching insects, or creating hideaways. And even though children’s nature play rarely does a substantial degree of ecological damage, care should be taken to avoid spaces that have sensitive species or landforms.
The right kind of play is child-centered play. This means that the activities are initiated and guided by the children themselves, with adults intervening only to assure basic safety. Also, there don’t need to be any measurable objectives; it is enough that the child directly interacts with nature through play. It’s all about playing with nature!
Lastly, the right kind of re-play refers to the need to have children regularly visit the same local spaces for nature play. It’s these places that will become integrated into the day-to-day rhythm of their lives, and which eventually take a place in their hearts. This is why having nearby nature is critical for kids, and the role of backyards, neighborhood green spaces, and schoolyards should not be underestimated.
As we grow our nature play program at Loudoun Wildlife, we’ll be working hard to help local children get the chance to play (and re-play) in nearby natural spaces. Already we’ve had a great time with our newly created team of Play Rangers, hosting nature play sessions next to our office at Morven Park in Leesburg, and at local green spaces such as the Chapman DeMary Nature Trail in Purcellville. We’re also starting to create enhanced nature play spaces by adding digging pits and piles of sticks for fort construction to area green spaces.
If you’re interested in helping with the effort to promote nature play for today’s children, there are a number of things you can do. You can create space in your own yard that can serve as a wild place for kids to explore, just by letting it get a bit overgrown and letting kids know it’s fair game for digging and building in. Even if you don’t have kids of your own, these spaces can become cherished spots for neighborhood children or nieces and nephews (especially if there’s a resident nature lover who can help them with bug catching and fort building as needed!).
Another option to promote nature play is as simple as sharing stories from your own childhood with the kids in your life. Tales from years ago can serve as much-needed inspiration, since many kids these days don’t have the chance to learn from their peers about ways to play outdoors.
If you’d like to learn more about nature play at Loudoun Wildlife, please contact Meghan Goldman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pennsylvania Land Trust Association’s “Nature Play: Nurturing Children and Strengthening Conservation through Connections to the Land”: https://conservationtools.org/library_items/1360