When Kids Play Outside, Good Things Happen

By Casey Beebe Gazette Contributing Writer

I vividly remember, as a child, playing make-believe house in the hollowed-out bushes in the side yard of our rural Wisconsin home.

One little alcove was the kitchen where we prepared our own version of stew—dandelions and various other plant parts floating in water in one of my mother’s cast-off bowls. Under the sumac there was a nice little tuft of grass that was the baby’s bed, and we traded aspens’ coin-like leaves as money. The world outside and my imagination wove together effortlessly.

As an environmental educator, I try to make sure similar experiences happen for young people today. Yet how do my

colleagues and I explain why it is important for kids to have time outside playing in the woods, building forts, watching ants at work or making dandelion chains? When MCAS tests are breathing down our necks, how do we convey that this is not a bonus, an enrichment activity, but as essential to future human life on this planet as the three Rs: reading, writing and arithmetic? How do I convey that my time spent playing in the natural world was critical to my development?

Research supports the idea that interacting with nature provides kids with an academic and social boost in addition to helping combat obesity. Author/educator Richard Louv’s notion of “nature-deficit disorder,” for example, describes a significant negative impact on children alienated from nature. Other recent studies have called recess the fourth essential R, saying that time spent playing freely outside increases concentration, and improves behavior, test scores, and physical health and well-being. It also is likely to be more creative, reduce stress and help children with attention deficit disorder, because it provides an opportunity for “involuntary attention” rather than the “directed” attention that school demands.

When kids play in nature a variety of good things are at work. Clearly physical and behavioral development benefit, but outdoor play also forms a foundation for responsible environmental behavior. It seems that all the great stewards and environmentalists share one common characteristic: plenty of childhood time playing freely outside, whether in a suburban ditch and culvert, the woods in Vermont or an overgrown urban lot.

Humans need to have a relationship with the natural world in order to feel a responsibility to it. This is a main tenet of environmental education, so we are always working to facilitate these relationships. It is an understatement to say this is increasingly important. At the Hitchcock Center for the Environment, our favorite moments are always the ones that surprise us—when the kids end up enthralled with figuring out a way for Speedy, our box turtle, to crawl out of his pen himself or when they develop an elaborate fairy village and then decide to see what happens if they flood it. We also always enable them to have those quiet still moments to just gaze up at the wind in the treetops or a butterfly gracefully pollinating a little flower on the forest floor.

We need to make sure this next generation of children understands the utterly interdependent nature of our existence on this planet. So forgive me when I say let’s kill two birds with one stone and get those kids outdoors. We’ll end up increasing their health and vitality, as well as ensuring that their generation acts within ecological principles, not outside them. Let’s encourage them to build real forts—not virtual ones— and catch fireflies, explore ponds, grow peas, go wherever their imaginations take them.

My parents used to tell me, “Go play outside.” Let’s all keep saying this, and collectively make sure there’s room for playing under the spruce in the backyard between violin practices, soccer games and dance classes.

Casey Beebe is an environmental educator and community programs coordinator at the Hitchcock Center for the Environment.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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