I remember my childhood as days of going into the woods with my pocket knife and maybe some nails and lumber poached from my dad’s workbench.
I would spend all day in the dirt and trees with my many siblings, playing, chasing, running, climbing, and most memorably, whittling wood. At 8 years old, I had my own Swiss Army knife. I felt a sense of industriousness, independence and maturity in owning my own tool. I would use my knife to make bows and arrows, fishing poles, bracelets, and my beloved tree fort. This is just what I did, seemingly, daily. My mom was probably back at the house attending to an infant and baking apple pie. Who knows? Because I rarely had to check in. She was content knowing I was probably within ear shot while she managed the household needs undisrupted. She left us kids to our own devices. We were the masters of our play time. We knew our boundaries by testing our own limits. My mom didn’t stand over me while I used my pocketknife saying “be careful” every 10 seconds.
I inherently knew to be careful. I knew the knife was sharp and would inflect pain and wounds. I knew that I would fall off my tight rope that I built if I didn’t pay careful attention. I knew these natural consequences because I had experimented. I learned through trial and error. I played with nature and manipulated my environment. Somehow, this notion of freedom, independence and outdoor play has been lost somewhere between my childhood and what I see in current children.
But I’m not ready to write this off as something my kids can experience. It’s important to me because I know the value of this now labeled “unstructured independent outdoor play.” I lived it and now even have research to support its benefits for healthy development. Healthy development that goes beyond curbing obesity.
There is a wealth of information and research available to support the benefits of unstructured outdoor play. These benefits include: gross motor skill development, strong executive functioning skills, strong fine motor skills,better peer interactions and higher self esteem. These studies also show that the majority of our elementary school and preschool kids are getting only around 30-45 minutes of outdoor play per day. Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist and founder of Timbernook, a nature based outdoor program in New England designed to foster creativity and independent play, recently published some of her findings. She discovered through her research the effects of this nature deficit to range from ADHD to these kids having lack of core and facial muscle development. A small part of her study was conducted in a popular art- integrated charter school in New England and found that only 1 in 12 students had normal strength and balance. When I read this, I was shocked. I mean, we’re not talking about an inner city school that may not have access to quality resources. We’re talking about evaluating kids from a school that was already trying to provide more meaningful education.
The reality here is our kids need to move their bodies more.
Our kids need more than 30 minutes per day. They need hours to climb trees, roll down hills, balance on fallen logs, chase milkweed seeds as they drift through the air, and follow snakes as they slither through the brush.
One reason our kids are no longer getting this beneficial play, is the shift in thinking that our kids need more “educational” experiences. We need to shift the paradigm back to realizing the many benefits, including educational, of play in nature. There is so much pressure on having our kids reading, writing, and doing math at earlier and earlier ages and failing to recognize the value in building a mind and body capable of learning. When a child lacks the basic core strength to actually physically sit in class, that child is then too fidgety and unable focus to absorb any new information. Let’s let our kids engage in their natural world building core skills and deepening their respect for themselves and the world around them.
So how do we do this? How do we give our kids hours of outdoor play per day? I think the answer will be different for every family. Maybe the solution is helping find the right schooling for our kids, one that focuses on outdoor play. Maybe the solution is pushing back at public schools to purposely engage our children outside. What if every student had access to one day per week to be outside all day?