Why nature play
If we want children to flourish,
to become truly empowered,
let us allow them to love the earth
before we ask them to save it.
Responsibility to our children
It’s hard to overstate the benefits of outdoor play for children’s health and well-being. Below are a few of my favorite reasons. I feel strongly that one look at this list should convince most administrators that they need to mandate time in the outdoors for all their students. (It goes without saying that time outdoors raises academic scores, but there are many other important reasons.)
- Children who play outdoors reduce their chance of becoming near-sighted. (As Thomas Lowe Fleischner says, “Playing outside, in other words, literally helps us see the world more clearly.”)
- Playing in nature improves gross motor skills, including balance, coordination, and agility. Walking, running and climbing on uneven surfaces (as opposed to the smooth surfaces of a man-made playground or classroom) helps children’s bodies grow and adapt to the terrain.
- Students diagnosed with ADHD demonstrate fewer symptoms when playing outdoors in an unstructured environment. It helps with attention, focus, and memory.
- Kids who play outside are less anxious than those who don’t.
- It also reduces stress, anger and aggression in children.
- Kids who play outside move more, resulting in healthier bodies and brains.
- Plus, it’s fun! Kids love to roll down hills, look for bugs, hide behind trees, and build fairy houses. I have never once had a kid say to me “I’m bored” or “What are we doing after this?” when we are playing outside (unless it’s really cold – I live in Wisconsin after all). I really believe playing outdoors is a right that all children deserve, most of all because it’s what they were born to do.
Responsibility to the earth
If attentiveness can lead to wonder, and wonder can lead to love, and love can lead to protective action, then maybe being aware of the beautiful complexity of lives on Earth is at least a first step toward saving the great systems our lives depend on.
Kathleen Dean Moore
A variation on this statement, made by one of my all-time favorite authors, underlies the fundamental belief of all environmental educators – if we teach children to love the earth, they’ll be the ones to save it. At risk of sounding too dramatic, the kids we teach today will be the ones that put a stop to climate destruction begun yesterday. Not all our students will become scientists or environmental activists. But if they feel an affinity towards their landscape, or a particular animal, or even a single tree in their front yard, they’ll be more likely to take steps to save these things they love. They will hopefully vote against politicians that support big business, think twice before using that plastic bag, consider biking to work, encourage LEED certification in their office, or start a composting system in their backyard. Where does this love for nature begin? When they are young and open to knowing the world.
If you need more reasons…
There are countless books, articles and research publications that support the importance (indeed the necessity) of both play and outdoor learning for kids. Here are some of my favorites.
- Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life by Peter Gray
- Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder by Richard Louv
- Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown
- The Power of Play: Learning What Comes Naturally by David Elkind
- The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grownups by Erika Christakis
- The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier and More Creative by Florence Williams
- Choice Time: How to Deepen Learning Through Inquiry and Play, PreK-2 by Renee Dinnerstein
Articles & Resources
- Alliance for Childhood: The Crisis in Early Education: A Research-Based Case for More Play and Less Pressure
- US Play Coalition, American Association for the Child’s Right to Play (IPA/USA) and the Alliance for Childhood: A Research-Based Case for Recess
- Alliance for Childhood and US Play Coalition: Improving Children’s Health through Play: Exploring Issues and Recommendations
- Defending the Early Years: The Disappearance of Child-Directed Activities and Teachers’ Autonomy from Massachusetts Kindergartens
- Natural Start Alliance: Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature
- Dimensions Educational Research Foundation: Helping Children to Love the Earth Before We Ask Them to Save It: Developmentally Appropriate Environmental Education for Young Children
- Children & Nature Network: Research Library