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Nature PlayRemember 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.

The 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 adjacent 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 fall.

“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.


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