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Unstructured, outdoor playtime for children is becoming obsolete in the modern world. Child development pioneer Jean Piaget stated, “Play is the work of childhood.” There is no better place for play than outside. The outdoors paradoxically stimulates and relaxes, as every part of the brain comes awake. Children can play with a kit of infinite loose parts available in nature. It’s free, it’s everywhere — especially here in Portland — and it makes children smarter! Here’s how.
Kids spend a lot of time operating within rules and boundaries that restrict their natural impulses for speech and movement. Outside, they can be LOUD, they can run, they can climb, they can fully relax and behave in accordance with their level of development. In other words, kids can be kids.
Many of today’s pediatricians and child psychologists are writing prescriptions for park Rx and vitamin N (Nature) to treat a growing list of ailments, including anxiety, depression, obesity, and sensory disorders.
“Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.” — John Muir
It ignites curiosity.
Once their pent-up energy has been absorbed into the ether of nature, kids can follow their curiosity. In the house, an upturned pillow reveals a bedsheet, whereas an upturned rock sends lifeforms scattering in all directions (except slugs, who just sit there and hope their camouflage is adequate, which it isn’t). Nature is full of captivating surprises, leading kids to wonder what’s in there, what’s that, what if I …?
“I have no special talent. I am only passionately curious.” — Albert Einstein
It encourages observation.
Whenever we visit a park that has a bridge over a creek, my kids run about collecting sticks, leaves and such, and then they drop it piece by piece into the water. They observe what flutters, sails, or plummets. They notice the splashes and mimic the noise, “plop, plip, kersplashy!” They remark on what sinks or floats. I could write a hefty book documenting my kids’ observations in ten minutes of this activity, but I won’t, because it would be incredibly boring in text. However, those first hand experiences make vibrant memories, ready to be drawn upon when listening to discussions on buoyancy, density, lift, and air resistance in school.
“Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.” — Albert Einstein
It is a sensory experience.
An outdoor playscape engages the five senses, opening up all the pathways for self-directed learning. If a child climbs a tree, he or she feels the texture of the bark, breathes in the fragrance, feels and hears the rustle of the leaves, and sees the colors. The child knows that tree, even if he or she doesn’t yet have the name.
“Children live through their senses.” — Robin C. Moore, (NLI) Natural Learning Initiative
It exposes kids to patterns and chaos.
As hunter-gatherers in sneakers, we all have a natural talent for categorization and classification based on patterns, while paradoxically accepting the chaos of the natural world. Kids will remember which rocks or logs are homes to which bugs, with the expectation that there will be surprises. They’ll notice that worms appear after a rain and disappear with the sun. One day they will say, “Uh-oh, those clouds look like rain,” and be correct. When the sun shines through the sprinkles, they’ll start looking for the rainbow.
It allows kids to feel good in their skin.
When kids engage in outdoor play, their outer selves fall away as their true selves emerge. A tween posturing in her designer duds becomes a happy little girl when frolicking in dirty, wet leaves. Boys do the same, they become “just a bunch of kids” sporting dirty clothes, messy hair, tired bodies, and radiant smiles.
It builds strong immune systems.
There is a movement called Hygiene Hypothesis that is studying the connection between early exposure to bacteria in children and immune system development. It posits that children who get dirty have a more varied, beneficial gut flora, reduced risk for asthma and allergies, and better immune response to infections. Outdoor play provides opportunities for all that and a good dose of vitamin D, exercise and lower stress—all things that promote a healthy immune system.
“In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” ― Margaret Atwood
It promotes exercise.
When kids are outdoors, their bodies are almost always in constant motion, running, climbing, jumping, spinning in circles, rolling down hills and more. Their immersion in play drives their continuous movements, and without even noticing, most kids get in a killer, full-body workout that’d make a gym rat jealous. They come in at dusk ravenous, dirty, exhausted and happy. As for intelligence, as Christopher Bergland of Psychology Today writes, “Exercise starts a chain reaction that improves brain health.” (Psychology Today, Oct 11, 2013)
It provides opportunities for social interactions.
Put a closed door between neighborhood kids and many will be too shy to knock. When kids are outside, it’s game-on. Their playful noises will likely draw more kids out, often followed by parents; suddenly your neighborhood has become a community. As kids play, they develop the complex social skills involved in being a leader, follower and peacemaker in an effort to keep the game going.
“Wanna play?” — Amy Wachsmuth’s first words to every childhood best friend.
It provides opportunities for parent-child bonding.
Parents are also more relaxed and easy to engage out of doors, where the call of the dirty dishes and laundry are washed away by their child’s laughter.
“I now believe that outdoor adventures build family traditions — maybe even a heritage — through moments together that are later remembered and cherished, then respectfully protected and passed on to the next generation.” — Grant McOmie
It is an experiential lesson in physics.
Consider breaking a stick over your knee. Automatically, you grasp a stick with a wide angle, lift your knee, place the stick in front, and pull back towards the body. Now watch a child figure this out for the first time, and after much experimentation they’ll have a broken stick and a wonderful first-hand lesson in leverage, fulcrums and tensile strength.
It provides lessons in biology.
Every time a child steps into nature the science of life soaks in as if by osmosis. My girls and I were digging into a rotting log one day, and talking about how it was home to so many different bugs that live out their lives in the log. My older daughter said, “Yeah, it’s like the log is their entire planet. For all they know it’s always been there and will always be there.” A pretty apt description of a microbiome.
“Information, in order to be useful, should flow in all directions.” — Jim Anderson, “Tales from a Northwest Naturalist”
It presents opportunities to test and conquer fears.
I’m naturally afraid of heights, so I was drawn to climbing trees. As I climbed, my fear gave way to a sense of thrill, then I’d climb higher, and fear would again give way to thrill. Fear kept me safe, testing branches, always holding on to more than one, and thrill pushed me upward. Eventually I’d climb back down, muscles quivering with fatigue and excitement. How alive I felt! How brave. How capable. How unafraid I was of learning about fractions in school. I took fractions one limb at a time, and enjoyed the thrill of accomplishment when it clicked.
For my daughters, it’s jumping. They find progressively higher and higher rocks and other formations to jump from. It’s exhilarating to watch — and a little scary.
“Do one thing every day that scares you.” ― Eleanor Roosevelt
It promotes creative problem solving.
Consider making a fort with no tools; sticks become digging tools and framework, long grasses and flexible twigs become ropes, leaves become carpet, boughs become roofing thatch and imagination makes it a castle to withstand invading armies and dragons.
“Intelligence is what you use when you don’t know what to do.” — Jean Piaget
It engages the imagination.
The stick was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2008, a rather late addition for what is thought to be the world’s oldest toy. In the hand of a child it transforms into a wand, lasso, tool, bow, sword — whatever is needful at the moment. Sticks are found in infinite shapes and variety and stimulate imagination and creativity in every way.
“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — Albert Einstein
As parents, we need to recognize how new this modern world is to us, and that our children are going to feel the strain of the constraints it puts on their freedoms more acutely than adults. We can’t roll back time, nor should we wish it. However, we need to recognize a child’s implicit right to unstructured, outdoor playtime, and respect their ability to seek balance and learning, by making room for it every day. So grab a hot cup of tea and a book, and utter those four little words that we so often heard as children, “Go outside and play.” Then congratulate yourself on your amazing parenting skills.