The other day, a friend was bringing over her son (almost 9) and daughter (almost 12) to swim at our neighborhood pool.

But the weather was on the cool side—cool enough for long sleeves or even a sweater in the shade. The sky was a bit cloudy, too, so there wasn’t enough sun to warm us up.

“My kids won’t last long at a pool in this weather,” she said. “Would you like to come over here, or meet somewhere else?”

One of my kids overheard the conversation and called out, “How about the park?”

So we packed up some lunches and met at a woodsy park with a creek running through it.

We arrived, enjoyed lunch, then headed down a path to the creek.

Within seconds, everyone but my friend’s daughter had kicked off their shoes to wade. They spotted a line of rocks and wondered if they could add enough to dam up that spot. For the next half-hour or so, they worked together to build up the “dam,” and then started walking farther downstream.

Eventually, even the daughter headed down to join them. The whole crew invented games with mud and clay from the bottom of the creek and played with sticks.

My friend and I sat on a bench swing that had been installed by the water’s edge, watching while talking.

When we had to leave, I drove home thinking about the afternoon, the creek, the imagination, the activity and play. We enjoy going to our neighborhood pool—it’s a great way for the kids to cool off in hot weather and get great exercise. They meet up with friends and play Marco Polo and dive for pennies. A day at the pool with our friends would have been perfectly lovely.

But the day at the park was something more. We all—kids and adults alike—could use a few afternoons walking under a thick canopy of deep-green leaves, settling by a creek, wading, even building something out of rocks. In another part of the park, maybe they would have constructed a fort out of branches, logs, and sticks. Days like those, in a natural, outdoor setting working with basic, natural materials, feed something inside of me. Judging from the breathless reports coming to us from the creek, the relaxed grins, and the requests to return to the park, I think days like those feed something in the kids, as well.

I appreciated a story I read online in a Madison (WI) paper, talking about getting kids out in nature.

At a children’s park in the city, the author said the kids she took to play had spotted a pile of dead branches with a hand-lettered sign sticking out: “These materials may be used in the park for forts and other structures.” The kids went wild with delight, dragging the branches around to construct a giant teepee-like structure.

The article quotes psychologist Katie Watermolen: “Nature stimulates that sense of wonder. …When kids are outside, they are less anxious, more creative, more relaxed. All that leads to improved mental health.”

Surely great news like that has lots of people outside wading in creeks and constructing forts out of branches, right?

Sam Dennis, Associate Professor of Landscape Architecture at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, reports that “free play in nature is a vanishing pastime, even in nature-friendly Madison.”

“Nationally,” he said, “we’re finding that most kids spend their free time indoors. And when they are outside, very often they are tied up in some structured activity.”

Soccer. Swimming. Baseball. Football. These activities get kids outdoors in a healthy, team-building activity—they can be very good things. But after those hours of physical exertion outdoors training for a team sport, parents and kids are both tired and ready to head home. Thus, structured activities often replace outside free play.

When do kids get creative and invent? When are they free from step-by-step instructions from adults? Where do they go to dig in the dirt or even just walk through a natural setting and make their own observations? When do they make up their own ideas for play?

Jill Steinberg, who teaches a popular class on play in the UW’s Human Development and Family Studies program, said: “True play doesn’t have a goal … Children choose freely. They can set a goal if they want to, but they don’t have to.” The article adds this:

A 2007 report released by the American Academy of Pediatrics says free and unstructured play is healthy and, in fact, essential for helping children reach important social, emotional and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.

Also, these thoughts from Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods:

“A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest — but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in a field listening to the wind,” writes Louv. “Yet, at the very moment that the bond is breaking between the young and the natural world, a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature — in positive ways.”

The article touched on parental fears that keep kids inside (fear of the unknown, fear of abductions or stranger interactions, fear of the kids getting hurt). Kids, through parents, can develop anxiety about nature that keeps them inside where life is stranger-free, bug-free, mud-free, and relatively scratch-free. Some of these fears are founded on very real situations and experiences; others are irrational fears. The article only touches on this; other articles, books and Web sites deal with this angle in detail.

Overall, this article provided a thorough discussion of getting kids to rediscover the great outdoors, touching on a lot of the issues that come up when discussing free play outside in nature. I recommend it … and more importantly, I recommend taking kids to a park for an afternoon in a creek.


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