Why Encouraging Outdoor Play Supports a Healthy Ecology
Dig into research on healthy childhood development and one thing becomes abundantly clear: children NEED to be outdoors playing. Play, especially unscripted free play where children decide for themselves how to engage with their environment, is critical to health, learning, creative problem solving, social rule making, developing connections to nature and so much more. Remove outdoor play from a child’s life and they become less healthy. Add more of it and the benefits are clear. This is not conjecture. This is the reasoned conclusion from an ever-expanding catalogue of evidence-based studies from around the world and across many cultures.
It would be fair to ask why Bernheim, with a mission of connecting people with nature, is so interested in play initiatives. The reason is simple. It is through play that children develop connections, literal brain connections that lead to the development of their values and interests. If children are more engaged with screens and technologies at an early age than they are with their communities and their environment, then it isn’t hard to imagine a future where technologies are valued over communities. Play is therefore a “root” strategy. Gardeners know that to grow a healthy garden you must first address the soil. Childhood development experts know that to grow a healthy child you must first address play. By cultivating a community that values outdoor free play we are cultivating our next generation of environmental stewards.
It is through play that children develop connections, literal brain connections that lead to the development of their values and interests.
It turns out that not all play is equal. Ask anyone over the age of 50 about how they played growing up and many, if not most, will tell you their parents simply shoved them out the back door and said “go play, we’ll ring the bell when we want you to come back inside.” Sound familiar? It turns out that type of play creates a very different set of neurological connections, and therefore behaviors and values, than what has become the more prevalent “directed play.” Over the past 50 years play has gradually shifted away from free play and toward rule-based play like sports, learning games and adult-supervised play. The reasons for this are many but the result is that children develop differently today because of that shift. Much of the research is coming back with evidence that indicates we should be careful about continuing that trend for reasons that include health, safety and learning.
A good place to dig into this research is Children and Nature Network - www.childrenandnature.org