Remember as a child, getting home from school and bursting out the back door into
the back yard, field or woods to climb high in a tree, dig in the dirt or explore
the creek for things that squirm?
Today, a child’s life after school usually means sporting events, dance class, clubs,
church and social events. All of which have value, but leave children with very
little free time. The mantra many of us heard growing up, “Go outside and play,”
has been replaced with “Get in the car or we’re going to be late.” Even when kids
are home, and could be playing outdoors, computers, TV and cell phones seem more
compelling to them.
Recent studies show that children are smarter, cooperative, happier and healthier
when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play
in the out-of-doors, according to the Children & Nature Network, a national non-profit
organization designed to encourage and support the people and organizations working
to reconnect children with nature.
Whether they're making up games or tossing bugs into a spider's web, playing freely
in natural areas allows kids to make their own rules, dream up their own stories
and experiments, and come to their own conclusions—all at their own pace. And, unlike
playground equipment, which responds the same way every time it's used, nature changes
at the whim of the life that inhabits it. An overturned log may reveal a mouse nest
one day and a huge, spongy mushroom the next. Meeting small challenges like climbing
a tree or crossing a stream on a log bridge can build confidence and self-esteem.
importance of nature play is not a novel concept for Five Rivers MetroParks.
In addition to providing special places to experience natural wonders, the organization
has been working on programs to promote children connecting with nature for the
last several years. Programs on hibernating insects or how to track raccoons in
the woods are a staple on the children’s activity calendar.
“At the end of each of our nature programs we encourage participants to go home
and use what they learned in their own backyard,” says Joshua York, an environmental educator at MetroParks.
MetroParks is encouraging independent nature play in the parks as well. A number
of the parks feature areas designated specifically for unstructured nature play,
where children can safely roam, build rock damns and forts, play with flow of water,
pick wildflowers and balance on logs, all without the assistance of park staff
members. These “no rules” areas are intended to encourage imaginative play and connect
kids more deeply with nature and being outdoors.
One such designated nature play area is at Adventure Central, an education center
for youth ages 5-18 at Wesleyan MetroPark in west Dayton
. Staff members at the park
have constructed nature play features in their existing urban outdoor play area
that include a digging area, log pile, fort building area, and edible gardens.
Wegerzyn Gardens MetroParks is exploring the idea of utilizing an island in the
Stillwater River as such a nature play area. Dubbed Adventure Island by park staff, this naturally defined space is accessible by river-bound rocks used
as stepping-stones and is covered with nature’s toys like twigs, logs and rocks.
Although it is covered by water and ice through the winter and spring, they hope
to use the island for programs such as the Outdoor Explorer Club in the summer and
“The Outdoor Explorer Club was started last fall,” says Janelle Leonard, a children’s
education assistant for MetroParks. “We had no idea if the kids would be interested
in this new club, but have received an overwhelming response. We even had a waiting
list of kids anxious to join.”
The club met weekly at Wegerzyn Gardens MetroPark from October-March. Staff allowed the children to
decide what they wanted to do each week based on what Mother Nature provided for
them. When there was ice, they skated on the frozen forest floor with their shoes.
When there was water, they tromped through puddles. When the sun was shining, they
climbed trees or built forts. The club will start up again this fall
with additional sessions to accommodate the demand.
Over the summer, nature play will be offered as part of the drop-in programming
in Children’s Discovery Garden at Wegerzyn. One day a week, staff will take the kids to explore
nearby animal habitats, do some rock skipping or crawdad catching, or participate
in a tree-climbing competition.
Another novel concept being tested by MetroParks is the play naturalist. Play naturalists
are volunteers or park staff that greet families coming to the parks and invite
them to try playing with nature instead of just walking or hiking. The naturalist
might use pelts of various animals or stuffed birds that they can touch as an icebreaker,
and then give them some ideas for bug collecting or playing games in the prairies
or woods. And parents get to be part of the fun. The naturalist also encourages
the parents to join in the games, to remember how much fun it was playing outside
when they were kids and connect with their children on a whole new level.
“The goals of the play naturalist program are two-fold,” says York. “We want the
kids to go home thinking ‘it’s cool to play outside!’ but we also want to educate
parents on what they can do to change their family’s habits. We want parents to
have the know-how to encourage spontaneous nature play at home, whether it be ideas
for outdoor activities or how to make small changes to the landscape of their yards
to get kids wanting to go outdoors.”
The limited program has been well-received to date, and staff hopes to make it a
regular weekend amenity in all the nature parks over the coming year.
“The only thing holding us back is the need for volunteers to be our play naturalists,” says York. “If you love children, being outdoors and can be silly and free enough to actually play with families, we could really use your help. By volunteering,
you can also get some great outdoor time yourself and really bring joy the families
you work with.”
Experts agree. The benefits of nature play are plentiful, for both children and
adults. Think about what might be keeping you and your kids from spending more time
outdoors. No electrical outlets? Don't know where to go? Afraid of getting hurt?
Busy with after school activities? Just never made it a priority? The benefits of
outdoor play far outweigh the obstacles. Come to your local MetroPark this weekend
and give nature play a test drive. It’s as simple as sharing your reactions to the
sliminess of a salamander, the perfection of a tiny blossom or the unexpected rainbow
in a mud puddle.
Nature Play at Home
Joshua York, MetroParks Naturalist and Educational
Interpreter has these simple suggestions for introducing more nature play at home:
Put limits on your kids’ TV, video game and computer time. By forcing them to find
other things to do, kids will use their imagination and begin exploring what to
do with their time outdoors. They may be confused at first, but eventually they
will find the door to the backyard.
Give kids more ownership of the backyard. Designate a 10-foot square area specifically
for each child to use. Allow them to garden, dig, grow, build do whatever he or
she wants. Have them think of it as their own personal “outdoor room” to do what
they can’t do inside the house. You can even make up a play deed for the piece of
land and give it to the child to have him or her feel more responsibility and ownership.
Give nature-oriented gifts. When birthdays and holidays roll around, choose gifts
that you don’t need to plug in. Instead, give them a magnifying glass, butterfly
net, bug jar or other items that add to their outdoor experience.