Nature as a Play and Learning Ground

11/30/2010 03:48 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Think back to when you were a child. Did you crave the outdoors? Did you have a favorite spot to play -- a tree, a stream, a rocky crevice or vacant lot? Did you have a special place to hide, where you could watch without being seen and let your imagination run free? Did you resist being called back inside, wanting to swing one more minute with your face tilted up to the darkening sky or to finish a last exhilarating game on the street?

Because of our own experiences, many of us already know and feel the benefits of play in natural settings. Research corroborating our first-hand perceptions comes as no surprise, but it helps us understand why outdoor play is so essential. One reason is that nature offers unparalleled opportunities for exploration and experimentation. As landscape architect Samuel Nicholson put it, "In any environment, both the degree of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kind of variables in it." The number and kinds of "variables" outdoors are endless: plants, animals, insects, water, sand, dirt, dust, hills, holes -- all of these are fascinating, and many change over time, constantly revitalized as material for children's play.

Nature is the very best place for children to find "loose parts" -- that is, material for play that can be moved around and used in many ways. Pieces of wood can make a fort or a miniature world; rocks can serve equally well as pretend people or pretend food in an imaginary game; dirt can be sculpted into a palace for ants or dug to create a hole for buried treasure. The open-ended characteristics of the natural world excite play far richer than what children will ever find in manufactured toys that require them only to push buttons or follow pre-set rules.

The gross motor play children need in order to become physically adept emerges spontaneously and joyfully in the outdoors. The natural world offers room to run; irresistible opportunities to climb; uneven terrain to be negotiated. Most children need no coaxing or coaching to burn calories outside; all they need is time, playmates, and permission from adults to explore what their bodies can do. As landscape architect Robin Moore writes, "The indeterminacy of rough ground allows it to become a play-partner, like other forms of creative partnership: actress-audience, potter-clay, photographer-subject, painter-canvas. The exploring/creating child is... using the landscape as a medium for understanding the world by continually destructing/reconstructing it".

Nature offers children not just physical room to play, but mental and emotional room as well. The "secret spaces" young people need for private reflection and growth can be found in abundance, and children will use their time outdoors to nurture contemplative as well as active forms of playfulness. Their ability to relate creatively and peacefully with others expands in nature too: researchers have found decreased incidents of aggression and increased imaginative play and creative social interactions in environments converted from asphalt to an "environmental yard" with ponds, gardens, a meadow and trees.

Features of the natural world children explore with their senses by day, they play with in their dreams at night, and turn into poetry when they wake.