We were exploring a forested trail when the lightning came and the skies opened up, forcing us to seek shelter. The storm eventually passed, and as we returned to the car, lo and behold there were puddles galore. So what did my 3- and 4-year-olds instinctively do? They galloped and jumped and splashed the whole way back, giggling uncontrollably, as did I. They played until they were sopping wet and covered with mud from head to toe. And it was wonderful.
Play is essential to childhood development, and although board games, Legos and play sets are important, they can’t beat the benefits of unstructured “nature play.” Fueled by our species’ innate connection with the outdoors, kids engaging in nature play walk on top of fallen logs, lead off-trail expeditions through tall grasses, find forts in the low-hanging branches of trees, or turn over rocks to discover what lies beneath.
Nature play is fun, and behind the scenes it’s continuously doing amazing things for young bodies and brains. It often lasts longer than indoor play and is more complex and self-directed. It presents irregular, challenging spaces that help kids recognize, assess and negotiate risk while gaining confidence and competence. As much as we parents want to guide our kids’ development, nature play encourages learning through independent trial and error. Recent research tells us even more.
It’s good for growing bodies.
Nature play improves motor skills. Negotiating boulders and logs demands more coordination than balancing on manufactured play equipment.
When enjoyed regularly, it reduces incidences of obesity. • It increases exposure to sunlight and vitamin D, which when deficient can put kids at risk for several health conditions.
It focuses young eyes on what’s ahead, not on hand-held devices, reducing the risk of nearsightedness, which is increasingly common in children.
It stimulates the immune system. (Yes, dirt is good!) Kids who frequently play in natural settings are sick less often than those who don’t.
It’s good for developing brains.
Nature play places kids in natural environments, which fosters the development of independence and autonomy and improves awareness, reasoning, and observational skills.
It improves early literacy skills and reinforces self-worth.
It helps children with symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder better concentrate.
It reduces stress and incidences of behavioral disorders, anxiety and depression.
It’s good for young social skills.
It teaches kids how to collaborate, establish community rules and exercise self-control.
Natural environments stimulate social interaction, create more positive feelings between kids, and reduce bullying.
Nature play fosters a connection between kids and the natural world, creating a lifelong love of the environment and an interest in protecting it that lasts well into adulthood.
For thousands of years we humans existed exclusively in the great outdoors, attuned to the feel of the breeze on a warm day, the smell of soil after a rain, the sound of splashing water. No wonder today’s nature play engages the imagination and supports the healthy development of our littlest humans as seamlessly as it does.
Focusing on finds in the distance gives young eyes a break from close-up screen time.
Children explore the waterfall at Waterfall Glen Forest Preserve in Darien.
Stepping from rock to rock requires more strength and dexterity than balancing on equipment in a playground.
Show Them How It's Done (We Can Help!)
The world beyond our backyards can be scary for kids, but we can do a lot to remove some of the anxiety. Get your kids talking about nature. Bring bits of it into your home. When outside, encourage independent exploration and risk-taking, and by all means let them get dirty!
The Forest Preserve District has programs for kids from tots to teens that present new experiences and ways to safely enjoy nature play. This spring’s schedule starts on Page 8. You can also request a customized adventure just for your group by calling 630-933-7247. istock.com/FatCamera
Kick Around a Creek
First-hand experiences in nature “off the beaten path” give a huge boost to a child’s body, mind and well-being. Fortunately, DuPage preserves have plenty of neat places to poke around.
At Kline Creek Farm, a recently cleared area near the parking lot gives kids room to run, explore and feel the creek through their fingers. A footpath along the water has fallen logs to climb and rocks to overturn to see what lives below. But grownups, don’t forget to embrace your own “inner child” while you’re there. Nature play is great for everyone!