My daughter is only three, but already there are a bewildering number of programs available to “enrich” her childhood. There are preschool classes in yoga, music, art, martial arts, and science (to name a few). They are all wonderful and needed, no doubt. But, I have decided that all these choices can detract from the simple fact that free, unstructured play outdoors is one of the very best experiences we can give our kids. No class enrollment is required and opportunities exist in our own yards and parks. The research is convincing. Every domain of development — social, emotional, cognitive, and physical — is helped by regular opportunities for outdoor play. How is this true? Just think of some kids playing with sticks to make a fort. They are problem solving and learning to cooperate and express themselves. Challenging feelings get worked out through their play, reducing stress levels and behavior issues. The chance to get excited about the wonders of nature and to get physical exercise are just a few more of the benefits that await our kids when they get outside. Being surrounded by trees has been shown to reduce stress hormone production, increase attention spans, and lead to more prosocial behavior. Despite all the well-understood benefits, play outside is less a part of childhood today than any previous generation. Fear of the outdoors, structured schedules, and increasing connection to electronic media have made it less likely that kids will get the time they need outdoors. Maybe it is time we saw free play outdoors as less of an extracurricular, optional activity and more as a main focus of childhood. Our kids will thank us if we open the doors and get them outside.
Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, is the founder of Wildrock, a nature play space in Albemarle County, Virginia. Wildrock is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization with the distinct mission to promote health and happiness through nature experiences. Wildrock collaborates with schools, nonprofits, and social service providers to give enriching outdoor experiences to people of all ages. To find out more, check out www.wildrock.org0