When I was growing up, I was never indoors. I was the proverbial “Tom Boy.” I climbed trees, made mud pies, and played in the yard. But the best part of my childhood was the little patch of woods behind my house. It was about a hundred yards from my back door. On hot summer days, walking into the “entrance” was magical. It was always about 10 degrees cooler under the shade of the giant oak and maple trees. In the winter, as soon as there was enough snow (and I lived in the Lake Erie snow belt so we got plenty of it), I had my sled making a beeline for the back yard. There was a hill that sloped down onto an icy water way that cut the woods in half. The water way was only about 6′ wide and about 8 or 9 inches deep, but I loved it. I would spend the entire day running up and down that hill sledding away! I also had 2 tree houses back there. Both of them in the center of giant oak trees. I would sit in there for hours and just use my imagination with my surroundings.
My dad still lives in the house I grew up in. I am sad to say that my beautiful wooded entrance is now a bunch of overgrowth. I can’t even get back to my old tree houses. The last time I was there I went to take my kids back there and show them and couldn’t. I look at my kids and I realize, they never had an opportunity like this. Lets be real…there aren’t many hills in central Indiana, period. At least not any that you can sled on. And when it comes to trees…I think we have more corn. Wooded areas for my kids to explore are pretty non-existent.
Because of my profession, I know how important natural play is for kids. I make a point to get my kids involved with nature as much as I can. My little one has a butterfly garden that we tend to every year. (Pictured to the right…we had just let them go.)We also make sure to plant flowers, and do our best to plant a tree on Earth Day. Things they show me they are afraid of (like spiders or centipedes) I show there is no need to be. If I find a cool bug or a neat looking spider web, I make a point to show them. I want them to touch, feel, and find the cool stuff that is right in the back yard!
I want to take this chance to explain to all of you parents out there why all of this is important to the developing minds in your care. Did you know that nearly 90% of kids would rather play outside in a natural setting than sit on their backsides in front of a Play Station? They would rather be climbing trees and making mud pies. Natural play is not only preferred by kids, it’s also good for their health. They like to nurture and watch things grow, listen to the wind and the crickets, and roll down hills. According to an article in Playground Magazine called “Playing Naturally: Why Kids Need Nature,” “…children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance, and agility, and are sick less often.” This same article talks about how natural play environments actually help kids find their way if they are lost, helps with analytical thinking and problem solving, and are shown to have an easier time with math, science, reading, and social studies in school. In all of the research I have done, and all the articles and books I have read, it is my opinion that as a nation we would have less problems with ADD, more creative adults, and less crime if we would just leave natural spaces for kids to play. Want to build a condo? How about you develop the site into a kid friendly urban refuge instead?! Natural play encourages creativity, helps kids stay in tune with nature making them more likely to respect animals and their surroundings, and gives them the stimulation they need to focus and concentrate when it is needed. We were born creatures of nature. Everything from the food we eat, to the things we drink, to the air we breathe is nature. Shouldn’t our kids be taught a healthy respect for it? Shouldn’t our kids know how important nature really is?
Ask the kids in your care what they would rather do and see what they say. I’ll almost bet they would say, they want summer to hurry up and get here so they can play outside and look for all kinds of cool bugs, and play in the rain. So why are we, as the adults, not doing more to help them? Where could we help with natural play settings? My first thought is, “Where do kids spend most of their time?” That’s an easy one…at school. In a world where the race for knowledge is ever increasing in speed, we need to implement natural spaces for kids to unwind. And for Pete’s sake…DON’T TAKE AWAY RECESS! Many school districts are banning recess times, or at the very least shortening them, to force kids to focus more on academics. Now please know, I am a parent and a college graduate. I understand the importance of education. I am not saying that kids should be able to play all day long and not go to school. But is it any wonder that kids can’t focus on their studies when they have their faces crammed in books and to computer screens 8 hours a day? There is time to be an adult and a time to be a kid. Let them be kids! At the very least, make large outdoor classroom that will allow kids to study nature. Make it part of a science class. Make assignments of the different natural species of bugs or plants. If you do that, you have combined academics AND a natural environment. It’s the best of both worlds! Just a thought…
The second place that comes to mind, is at home. Next to school, kids spend the rest of their time at home. What are you doing for the kids in your care that keeps them in tune with nature? With the rise in awareness of crime, it is only natural that parents want to keep their kids shut up in the house all the time. We’re terrified something bad will happen to them! But are we hurting our kids by keeping them locked up inside all the time? Probably. My husband and I decided to move to a rural farming community for that reason. We lived in a metropolis when we got married, and in our opinion it was no place to raise a child. Is it boring? Yep! And that is just the way we like it. I can let my kids play in the backyard on their swing set without worries of someone kidnapping them. They can play in the snow in the front yard, (where I can still keep a vigilant watch of course), and they can use their imagination to take them to some far away land where white rabbits and snow beasts roam. (Pictured left is my daughter playing in the front yard with one of our dogs when we had our first snow this year.) We play in the leaves in the fall and in the hose in the summer. We go for hikes and play in the creek at the town park in the spring. We go sledding and build snow princesses when the snow finally falls. In other words, I use our surroundings and nature to nurture my kids. I practice what I preach so to speak.
Some people cannot choose to live where we live. Then some others believe that a sprawling metropolis allows their children opportunities that my kids won’t have, like private schools and access to museums and the arts. What is a parent to do in these situations? Make every attempt to keep your child connected to nature that you can. One thing I have discovered that is great for learning (and is easy on the wallet) is a bird feeder. You can identify the different animals that come and watch their families grow. We actually have a family of cardinals that we watch grow year to year. Some other ideas are, feed the ducks or the pigeons at the park, or maybe send your kiddos to camp when you can. A lot of children’s museums are actually adopting natural play spaces for kids to play in. If you are fortunate enough to be near one of these places, take your child there. The Indianapolis Children’s museum is one that I would recommend if you aren’t far away. Take them to zoos and aquariums to learn about different plants and animals. You still have options.
Enough on parents! what can communities do to get involved? Parks are amazing places to build natural play spaces! Nearly every community on the face of the planet has a park. If your community has the funds, instead of buying traditional playground equipment, spring for natural themed stuff. We offer all kinds of tree houses and other nature themed equipment. We have even done custom stuff that looks like the real deal. Pictured left is a tree house we did for Rossford Park for the City of Fort Thomas. It has natural looking logs, mushrooms, tree stumps, and wood grain posts. It even has a giant net that looks like a spider web! And that grass…is actually a special kind of turf that allows kids to fall without getting hurt. Now obviously you don’t have to get this fancy with it, but the options are out there. Adding to this, throw a couple of giant rocks, a log balance beam, sand, water, and some hills and you have a great play area without the expense! There are lots of state parks that have natural settings already in place where kids of all ages can explore. Make some hiking trails that allow kids to explore. (Pictured right is my 13 year old playing on the rocks at Nelson Ledges State Park.) Remember, it’s about the kids in your communities. The ones who may one day run the very cities you live in now. Shouldn’t we take a little time to make sure they get the natural stimulation they need to grow and develop?
In closing, we are the adults. We are the ones that make the decisions and set the rules. We are the only ones that can ensure our kids are in touch with the natural world around them. Go outside and play with your kids! They need you and mother nature to make them grow into happy, healthy adults.