Jeffers Foundation


Letter to Families

January 30, 2012

Dear Families,

In a society that encourages parents to fill every waking moment of children's' lives with structured activities, it's easy to fall into a pattern of shuttling children from one after-school practice, lesson, or game to another. Even though I grew up in a family where the closest thing my siblings and I came to structured after-school activity was organizing a game of tag, I distinctly remember my daughter's first dance class. Other moms were chatting, while I excitedly watched my three-year-old to see how she was faring in her first attempts at ballet. As I heard the other moms, I felt this rising dread in me, realizing that my daughter wasn't also in gymnastics, swimming lessons, and t-ball; nor was she in piano lessons. At three, she was already behind! But No she wasn't! It just seemed so. After all, my Mom didn't need a smart phone to organize our time, she just sent us outdoors to play!

Julie Ernst, Ph.D.
Julie Ernst, Ph.D.

But how easy it is to lose sight of the value of play - even when I knew better! I'm an educator and researcher very familiar with the value of play and, in particular, nature play! Yet the normative influence of other parents is strong, as is the desire to do what is best for your children. Thus, I think it is good for us to be reminded periodically of the value of good, old-fashioned play!

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently published a report describing play as essential to the healthy development of children. They discuss the benefits of play, and in particular, the benefits of unstructured or child-directed play. Those benefits include the development of creativity and imagination, as well as problem-solving skills and even healthy brain development. They also describe the skills children develop through unstructured play that will benefit them not only as children but also as adults: learning to work in groups, to share, to negotiate and resolve conflicts, and skills in self-advocacy and self-regulation. They also note the importance of unstructured play in increasing the physical activity levels of children leading to better health.

As schools move to reduce or even eliminate recess in efforts to devote more time to academic preparation, it is ever more important for families to recognize the need for and provide their children with time and opportunities for unstructured play. How can we do this?

One important way is through nature play. Nature play occurs in a natural or unmaintained outdoor space, such as a forest, an overgrown field, or the wild edges around a yard, playground, or neighborhood. In these settings, nature is full of "loose parts" such as sticks, rocks, or tall grass which have no predetermined purpose, and thus offer abundant potential for imaginative and creative play.

If you think about a child playing in a small patch of woods, the trees might be a fort and the branches used to jump and swing. The grass and leaves might be a bed, a hiding spot, or pretend food. Now compare these possibilities to the imaginative possibilities provided by a swing or slide. While both allow for physical activity, the woods tend to offer more options, and it is these options that provide so many benefits to the physical and motor skill development of children. The possibilities provided by nature affect the way children play, which in turn affects the way their bodies develop. Researchers have found that trees, shrubs and unmaintained grounds prompt an increased level of physical activity in children, as well as increased motor-skill development and improved long-distance vision.

While play in general is good for a child's mind, play in nature is particularly beneficial. When engaged in nature play, a child has opportunities for decision making that stimulate problem solving and creative thinking, opportunities that aren't as easily found in indoor and more structured outdoor environments. In school, children are often required to focus on a single task for a period of time, which requires the use of "directed attention" or focus. In nature, however, they are free to let their attention wander, which may give the parts of the brain responsible for focus a chance to relax and recover. This helps explain why parents who were surveyed regarding the behavior of their children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) reported that their kids were calmer after time spent playing in natural areas and why school teachers give student behavior higher ratings when students have daily recess.

Researchers are also exploring nature play's potential to improve many aspects of children's emotional well-being such as minimizing anxiety, depression, aggression, and sleep problems. Additionally, there is research to suggest that time in nature can increase feelings of self-worth and strengthen social bonds between kids. When playing in nature, children have increased opportunities for negotiating, sharing, problem-solving and working together.

Beyond these benefits, nature play can provide the positive experiences that may precondition children to caring about the natural world later in life. Environmental education research suggests the important role of time spent outdoors in natural areas in demonstrating concern for the environment in their daily lives as adults. The National Science Foundation also supports nature play in early childhood as a means to increase later interest in and understanding of science. These early explorations become a foundation for later understanding of natural science, which may foster better environmental decision-making in the future.

Yes, structured activities and activities indoors can be of value to children. But at the same time, it is important to recognize that we may be out of balance in terms of the time our children spend in activities other than play. And maybe we don't need a report from the American Academy of Pediatrics or a list of research-based benefits to remind us of the importance of play or the over-heard chatting of busy moms. Instead, perhaps what we need is the opportunity to see our children splash in puddles, hide in tall grass, or bury their noses in a flower to remind us of the joy we remember feeling as a child just playing outdoors.

Julie Ernst


Nature Play
Cognitive development focuses on developing functions of the brain such as thinking, learning, awareness, judgment, and processing information... Nature play has been shown to increase cognitive development in children of all ages.
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Julie earned her Ph.D. at the University of Florida’s School of Forest Resources and Conservation, with an emphasis in environmental education research and evaluation. She has formerly served as an education specialist for the National Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and as a public affairs specialist for the USDA Forest Service. Her interest areas are program evaluation, environment-based education (environmentally-based formal instructional programs), early childhood EE/nature play, and federal agency EE programs.

Julie is currently an Associate Professor in the Center for Environmental Education at the University of Minnesota, Duluth.

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