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Outdoor Play: It’s Only Natural

By Stephanie Brindle, Lime Creek Nature Center Naturalist Intern –

“Go outside and play!”

Not too long ago, this parental command was a summertime staple. With school closed for the extended seasonal break and a sudden increase of “free time”, exiling children to the backyard or nearby park was one of the few options for parents. And, while some needed more coaxing than others, children thrived with their outdoor play—enjoying hours of entertainment jumping in puddles, digging for worms, or climbing trees.

(Photo:  For a variety of reasons children playing outside has become much less common these days.)

For many families, that parental command has changed. Today, the recurrent command seems to be along the lines of…“Hurry up and get ready for your violin lesson/ball game/tutoring session!” With an assortment of organized activities offered during the summer break, most kids no longer have free time at all. When they do or for those children not involved in organized activities, the excitement of video games, television, and other electronics often out-competes the more subtle allure of the backyard or park.

This change in childhood play concerns many parents, child development experts, and conservation professionals. It seems that their concerns are warranted. A growing body of research suggests that the lack of unstructured play in and with nature may be detrimental not only to our children’s physical and psychological health but also to the health of our natural environment.

In response to this issue, a number of organizations have surfaced to promote nature play. Omaha-based Green Hearts Inc is among these organizations. According to their website, “For the task of building greater future societal support for conservation, frequent nature play is more powerful than education, participation in youth groups, or even the influence of parents and other mentors.” The frequency of a child’s nature play affects their environmental stewardship ethic as an adult. As children freely explore and engage with natural spaces, they form a bond with that space that remains with them throughout the entirety of their lives. Without unstructured time outside, this bond with nature is severed. Consequently, their conservation ethic as an adult may also be compromised.

There are many reasons why children spend less free time outside. With busy schedules, exciting electronic gadgets, concerns about safety, and limited access to green spaces, it is difficult for families to get outside. However, there are things we can do to make it a little easier. First, we can free up our children’s schedules. Organized activities are important, but every child should have some time for unstructured play. Second, safety is always a concern, but we must not obsess over tiny dangers. While we cannot eliminate all risk, it is possible to remove known hazards. All children must learn to judge risks, know their limits, and practice responsibility at some point in their lives. Playing outside is a great way to do so. Last, we can encourage our kids to play outside. They may complain at first but will soon learn to love it! If a child is particularly resistant, we can set an example and join them outside—show them where to collect the best insects or where to find the best sticks for building forts. If we feed their curiosity and show genuine interest in nature, children will likely share that interest.

Kids have a wonderful ability to create play in unlikely places. Even the most urban of environments contain some element of nature with which children can creatively engage. North Iowans are lucky. There are plenty of opportunities for our children to explore nature. Whether it is in the backyard, a neighborhood park, or the Lime Creek Conservation area, our communities contain countless spaces for nature play. Let’s take advantage of these assets. This summer, bring back that parental staple and encourage your children to, “Go outside and play!”

For more information about the benefits of nature play and for ideas on how to “kidscape” your yard, visit the Green Hearts Inc website at www.greenheartsinc.org

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