There was a small creek running through a wooded lot behind my childhood home. Grown-ups called it a ditch. The older neighborhood kids ignored it entirely. But to me and my friends, it was a magical forest with grand canyons, deep pools, wild rivers, and exotic beasts. It offered mystery, joy, terror, and laughter in countless adventures.
I realize now it was, in fact, a drainage culvert. It and the woods were replaced with a neighborhood many years ago. But, that freedom to roam and play outdoors as a child developed a love of nature that strongly influences my hopes, dreams, and aspirations to this day.
Parents today may be unsure of the benefits of unstructured nature play. It is not uncommon for kids to bemoan bug bites, sticky clothes, damp socks, and missing tv shows. If it seems like a kid is decidedly not having fun, do they really get something positive out of that experience?
The short answer is, yes. There is strong science confirming that unstructured nature play has measurable physical, emotional, mental, and social value. For those of us who were lucky enough to chase fireflies and explore magical forests as children, that proof may be part of our daily lives.
Tracking from the National Park and Recreation Association shows children only play 4-7 minutes outdoors each day. By comparison, they spend seven hours in front of a screen daily. Those figures do not include the greater screentime necessary with virtual schooling.
If you see those numbers and start to panic that our next generation may lose the skills necessary to thrive outside of the house, you are not alone. The worldwide concern has resulted in the term Nature Deficit Disorder. It is an acknowledgment that without meaningful connections to nature, children may struggle with fundamental development.
Greater awareness of these connections has inspired deeper understanding and examination of how unstructured play in nature helps our children.
One emotional benefit of venturing outdoors is building confidence. When kids are in unfamiliar surroundings, they are given power to control their reactions.
Video games and television similar to 85 inch tv can have extreme visual stimulation, but nature can be even more immersive. The parading, squatting, and climbing that comes with outdoor adventures provides unique exercise. You could even buy Sydney ATV and dirt bikes to spice things up a bit. There are countless opportunities to expand and diversify stimulations by touching, smelling, tasting, hearing and seeing new things.
A sense of wonder inspired by the exotic and unfamiliar bring questions. Endless questions. Whether or not children get a satisfying answer, it encourages critical thinking. Lack of structured activities encourages the design of creative and imaginative games.
When we go about our day in urban environments, we are required to hold focus while constantly pushing aside distractions. This takes tremendous energy, especially for children whose cognitive abilities are less developed. Whereas in nature, there is a sense of soft fascination. Passive attention allows their minds to wander, take a break, and relieve stress.
For Hoosier kiddos, there is a week designated to introduce and encourage families to play outdoors called Nature Play Days, scheduled for June 5-13, 2021. Sponsored by Indiana Children in Nature Network, families can find events across the state hosted by environmental and community organizations.
Red-tail Land Conservancy is holding a Nature Play Days event on Tuesday, June 8 from 10am-11am at Red-tail Nature Preserve. Located by Prairie Creek Reservoir, this Habitat Hike for Young Explorers features a guided hike and nature scavenger hunt in a beautiful tallgrass prairie. Free nature journals (limited supply) will be given to the kids to record their observations as they search for wildflowers, bugs, birds and more. Event details can be found at www.ForTheLand.org/Events.
For families that want to stay engaged in outdoor play all summer, Red-tail Land Conservancy is offering a Do-it-Yourself summer camp. It includes eight weekly observation challenges. Each week there is a nature fact to discover, trail recommendation to explore, and an activity that sparks understanding of our natural world. Red-tail is offering free nature journals for young explorers to begin recording what they see and feel in nature. Details can be found at www.ForTheLand.org/kids-club.
To all the kids who make mud pies, jump in puddles, climb rocks, build stick forts, chase squirrels, mimic bird calls, barrel through brambles, roll over logs, stomp in creeks, and hug trees… let’s go outside and play.
Kelley V. Phillips is the Communications & Outreach Manager for Red-tail Land Conservancy. She strives to cultivate wonder in nature and action to protect it.
Photo by Ellie Storms on Unsplash