Thursday, July 7, 2016

Go Play Outside! The Value of Natural Play in the Natural World

"Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water-bugs, tadpoles, frogs and mud-turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb, brooks to wade in, water-lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hay fields, pine-cones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries, and hornets, and any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of his education." 
Luther Burbank, American botanist and pioneer in agricultural science.

For 16 years, I've taught young children, 5-8 years old.  For the last 6 years, I've taught 2nd grade students in a windowless classroom.  As a nature lover, it's been challenging for me not to be able to see the sky, the sun, the rain, or any part of the natural world from 8:00 to 4:00 pm.  It's also been a challenge for my students, who often will ask "Is recess outdoors or indoors?" to which I reply, "I don't know.  I've been in here with you all morning." In an effort to bring the outdoors into my classroom, I've placed silk plants on windowless ledges, hung posters of forests and rainbows, and kept a fan running to circulate the air.  Still, it is a windowless cell of a room, and one that I can't wait to escape from when the bell rings at 4:07. Many schools in inner city areas such as Detroit have cancelled outdoor recess due to safety concerns, giving students no time to interact with the natural world.   Students "enjoy" recess in their classrooms or walk the hallways to get some exercise.  Even suburban schools have proposed reducing the amount of time students spend outdoors in order to include more classroom instructional time.

Many of my students leave school to go home to apartments without much access to green spaces.  Many more attend tutoring sessions, sporting events, or extracurricular lessons which leave little time to be outdoors, interacting with nature.  When school was cancelled due to a snow day this winter,  I asked my students to write a paragraph about how they spent their day off.  I was surprised and saddened by the lack of time spent making a snowman, sledding, or battling friends in a snowball fight, and by the amount of time spent playing video games or watching movies.   For the rest of the week, the assigned homework included "Go play outside" in addition to "Study spelling words".

Recent research indicates the amount of time that children spend outdoors engaging in free play has plummeted along with the rise in obesity, stress,  anxiety, and behavior problems. Pediatrics Journal has found that 70% of American children aren't getting enough Vitamin D because they're not outside long enough to benefit from sun exposure. Besides Vitamin D,  outdoor play can provide children with many benefits including:
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Enhanced creativity
  • Development of problem solving and leadership skills
How do parents encourage outdoor play?

Like proper nutrition and bedtime reading, outdoor play is an essential component of child development.  Thinking back to my own childhood, I remember making mud pies with sand for streusel topping, acorn cups for animal friends or fairy tea parties, and capturing turtles and tadpoles.  Catching fireflies, grasshoppers, and garter snakes,  picking berries, searching for bugs, making a blanket fort, constructing a campground for dolls, and weaving dandelion stems into bracelets were how my friends and I spent summer days.

My son loved to make racetracks in the sand for his cars, and play Jurassic Park with dinosaurs and action figures.  I'll never forget when he smeared himself from head to toe with mud to stop mosquitoes from biting, an idea he picked up from an animal show on TV.

My daughter and her friend collected specimens like seeds, leaves, and rocks to present a traveling natural earth museum to indulgent neighbors.  At the lake, she would catch turtles and dig pools for them, including sandy tunnels and switchbacks to lead them back to the water. 

These activities have one thing in common,  very little adult direction.  Childhood is the most creative time of a person's life, and imagination is a powerful force.  As a parent, follow the lead of your child, only offering to help if asked. Your role is facilitator, not director.  If your child needs a little help getting started, go outside and just talk about what he observes. Sit on the porch and watch the leaves blow in the wind or ants crawl across the cement.  Ask questions about what you see to get your child to share her thoughts.  Get in touch with your inner child and try to whistle on an acorn cap or blade of grass, skip rocks, or catch fireflies.

If you help your children enjoy the outdoors, they will not be at a loss for something to do.  The natural world is calling. Go outside and play!


  1. A welcome and much-needed reminder in a time when we seem to think children require scheduled and organized activities rather than freedom to explore, discover, and play outdoors. Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I truly believe that we need to give the wonder, imagination, and creativity of childhood back to children.