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Nature, The Best Place to Play

Last Updated on Monday, 12 March 2012 14:20

unstructured-play.jpgToday many factors conspire to keep kids indoors, yet a growing body of research indicates that the shift away from unstructured outdoor play is detrimental to healthy child development. Free play - especially in nature or at creative playgrounds - is essential to cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development.
Many experts have called attention to the issue, most notably author Richard Louv, whose best-selling book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (newly revised edition) has been translated into six languages. "Passionate memories of a childhood spent in nature are nearly universal," Louv says. "It doesn't seem to matter what somebody's politics are or religion is. These memories are something we share in common. Except for younger people."

Stuart Brown, a neuroscientist and president of the American National Institute for Play, says that various factors have contributed to the demise of childhood play in nature. One is the perceived risk to children who are outside without adults, a perception derived from high-profile media stories about child abductions, which in fact are relatively rare. Another trend is that "free time" has become an oxymoron for many children, whose nonschool hours are packed with organized, achievement-oriented activities.

Other contributing factors include the shift from rural to urban living, an increase in single-parent households or households in which both parents are employed, and a drop in multigenerational households, which leaves fewer adults around to keep an eye on kids as they explore nature.

Research has shown that free play in nature increases children's cognitive flexibility, emotional capacity, critical thinking, problem solving, creativity, use of imagination, self-esteem, and self-discipline. It makes them smarter, more cooperative, happier, and healthier. 

"Nature is the most complex, information-rich system we'll ever encounter," says Stephen Kellert, a professor of social ecology at Yale, who with the Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson helped popularize the notion of "biophilia" - the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. "When children or anybody interacts with nature. . . there's adaptation, response to different conditions, challenge, mastery, uncertainty, surprise," Kellert adds. Nature also increases the opportunities for kids to come together and interact. Part of becoming a critical thinker is sharing ideas with and learning from others, which teaches one that there are multiple solutions to problems. "In natural places, kids tend to play more cooperatively," says Richard Louv.

The whole article Playing It Smart! by Erica Gies, freelance environmental reporter is published here in the newsletter for Trust for Public Land The Trust for Public Land conserves land for people to enjoy as parks, gardens, and other natural places, ensuring livable communities for generations to come.

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