Reach Outdoors: What is "Nature Play"?

by Shaun McKeon, MUCC Education Director
Play is an essential function in the development of children. And playing outside in nature is something that every child should have the opportunity to be able to do.  As our society has shifted away from getting kids outdoors, and children are spending more and more time plugged into technology, we are drifting away from nature.  Currently the average American young person age 8-18 is spending 7.5 hours per day engaging in some form of digital technology, according to a recent article in the Huffington Post. In an attempt to reverse this trend, MUCC and other organizations are trying to encourage more play outdoors.   One of the ways they are encouraging kids to get outdoors is through the creation of nature play spaces.
Over the last few years, the benefits of letting children play in nature play spaces have highlighted several outcomes. Unstructured free play in the outdoors has resulted in:
  • Providing opportunities for creative play.
  • Encouragement of a strong environmental stewardship ethic.
  • Fostering a love and appreciation for nature.
  • Promotion of healthy lifestyles.
  • Enhanced academic achievement.
  • Fostering a sense of place.
  • Encouragement in community and social development.
  • Providing restoration opportunities for the natural resources surrounding the play area.
  • Reducing stress and may possibly reduce some symptoms of ADD/ADHD, according to some studies.
  • Counteraction of Nature Deficit Disorder as described by Richard Louv in his book Last Child in the Woods
Currently, in the Greater Lansing area there are plans for the design and implementation of two nature play spaces at local nature centers. These play spaces are areas that are intentionally designed or designated to integrate natural components into a place for structured and unstructured play and learning. Such natural play spaces should provide an important early connection for children with nature and helps in the development of future environmental stewards. The spaces should provide an opportunity for both physical and creative play and support children’s physical, intellectual, and emotional development, according to some experts.
Once these areas are created, the idea behind them is to encourage children to play freely in the outdoors.  The idea behind the installations is currently an “if you build it they will come” concept.  By creating the spaces, organizations like Fenner Nature Center in Lansing and Harris Nature Center in Meridian Twp. hope that kids will be drawn to the area to explore the environment around them.
Many of our youth have been out of touch with the natural world and may not be exactly sure about what to do in nature.  Next week’s blog will have more about guidelines to help re-expose your kids to nature through play.  In the meantime you can share some ways you play outside with your kids in the comment section below.

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