Playing In Nature Deserves The Respect We Give Organized Sports

Unstructured, unsupervised time spent playing in nature provides your child with unique benefits.
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Perhaps you remember the playtime of your youth as I do. Hours spent outside in open fields, wooded lots or near running water, all without hovering parents. Children need this type of play, not just for its physical benefits, but to develop a strong sense of themselves and the world around them. Unfortunately, this type of play is increasingly uncommon for today's kids.

Play in nature allows kids to explore, dream and discover the world and themselves.
Play in nature allows kids to explore, dream and discover the world and themselves.

In many ways the work that I now do, reconnecting children to nature, is inspired by my nephew, Myles. When he was very young I started taking him on adventures in the woods near where his father (my brother) and I grew up, and one of our earliest adventures explains just what time in nature can offer a child. It began, as most encounters with young children do, with a question.

"Can we dig now?"

Myles was four at the time, and as he asked his question his face was lit with excitement. We were deep in the woods on a brilliant fall day, and all this boy wanted to do was play in the dirt. I had taken him to this small forest for some fun, mostly because it's what I did as a boy. Where he could move freely, unencumbered by the constant barrage of restrictions. And as I watched him, I began to realize this adventure was about more than play — it was about the boy I hoped he was becoming.

So why is this type of play for children disappearing? In its 2018 Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth, ParticipACTION cites some concerning trends. The report reveals that just 20 per cent of five- to 11-year-olds in Canada spend more than two hours a day in unorganized physical activity, and only 37 per cent of 11- to 15-year olds play outdoors outside of school hours. ParticipACTION gives this level of activity a failing "D" grade.

In contrast, ParticipACTION's report cites that 77 per cent of five- to 19-year-olds participate in organized physical activity or sport, and that 46 per cent of three- to four-year-olds spend time in physical activity through participation in organized lessons, or league or team sports. Their grade: "B." All of which begs the question: why the bias in favour of organized sports?

The value of unorganized play

The brilliant and engaging Nigerian writer (or storyteller, as she prefers to be called), Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was speaking eloquently on why we devalue and reject the pursuit of the arts by students in contrast to the vigorous embrace we see in our culture of the sciences. Practicality, she surmised, was the culprit.

Parents don't see the arts as practical, with the result being that young people get the message loud and clear: pursue the arts and risk a life of perpetual impecunity. This idea of what society attaches value to based on its perceived practical use got me thinking about what, if any, value North American culture places on time spent in nature, in particular for our children.

Consider the following scenario for a moment: You are standing rink-side, or field-side, or wherever your kid plays whatever they play. You fall into conversation with another parent who, coffee in hand, regales you with an impressively long list of activities their child does in addition to the sport you are both now watching. And you, the loving parent that you are, concerned about your child's future success, feel what?

Maybe your child is enrolled in just as many activities, so you will see that parent's swimming lessons and raise them fencing. Or perhaps you are the "unusual" parent and this is the only activity your child is registered in, the rest of their time spent playing in the forest near home. Without you, with just friends or siblings, perhaps in a nature program — or even alone. Will you then doubt your choices, fighting a vague feeling that you are putting your child at a comparative competitive disadvantage in life? Or will you rest easy in the knowledge, backed up by research, that unstructured, unsupervised time spent playing in nature provides your child with unique benefits?

Outdoor play — with its risks — comes with a great bundle of developmental benefits.Dr. Mariana Brussoni

Our culture imbues organized sports with tremendous utility, respect, even virtue. Some of us even secretly thrill at a possible future pro career for our kid. Up against that paragon, what chance does nature stand? If one begins to widen one's definition of which experiences and what types of knowledge and skills have practical value, then intentional time spent in nature is revealed for all that it can offer our children.

According to innovative research from Dr. Mariana Brussoni of University of British Columbia: "Outdoor play — with its risks — comes with a great bundle of developmental benefits for children. Unsupervised outdoor play, with elements such as water or fire, promotes not only children's social and physical development but also emotional well-being, self-confidence [and] risk management."

And there is still more that play in nature offers. The ability to think creatively, to employ compassion and use one's imagination are, for all their seeming softness, concrete skills. Skills that research demonstrates are foundational for success and enhanced by time playing in nature. So, what does time exploring in the woods have to do with developing these skills? Everything.

'Exhilarating moments of independence'

Aside from queries about whether I actually live in Rouge Park, the question the kids in our nature programs ask most out on the trails is "can I . . . ?" Whether it's a big, beautiful blue spruce begging to be climbed, or the shallow width of Little Rouge Creek enticing the kids to cross, my answer is usually, "figure it out." Creativity and imagination are the way forward here, and the kids must engage them to achieve what they want. Which branches will lead me as I make my way up this tree? What exposed rocks and logs fast in the creek bed will allow me to explore the muddy bank on the other side? Conquering challenges, unravelling problems with creativity and imagination are exhilarating moments of independence for kids.

There they can discover themselves, alongside rivers of freedom, trees and hills of challenge, and in the silence of the wind.

And intentional time in the woods can infuse the strength of that independence with the wisdom of the heart. "The fundamental human experience is that of compassion." Joseph Campbell, the renowned American writer and professor of mythology wrote that, and I agree. But something so fundamental cannot be taught, it must be experienced to be learned.

In the woods, nature met both me and Myles as we were, and changed us both. Take his first encounter with a caterpillar along our wooded path. His initial instinct to harm it underneath tiny toddler feet yielded to his desire to understand it as a living thing, revealing the depth of nature play and the root of compassion. Myles began to understand the reality of the principle that you and the other are one — there is no real separation.

Play in nature can deliver so much for our children. There they can discover themselves, alongside rivers of freedom, trees and hills of challenge, and in the silence of the wind. Becoming kids who will journey into adulthood knowing themselves fully, leaving them, as the poet and singer Jill Scott writes, able to "trust the soul that rhymes within you."

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