Having studied and worked in early childhood education for many years, as well as raising two kids of my own, I can attest that unstructured play outdoors is just about the richest of learning experiences. Its benefits keep on giving, well into adult life.
It’s not just the physical sensory experiences of feeling the unique textures of the natural world that line the brain with detailed information of our environment; it’s the mental relaxation that comes from being in the moment— free from expectations, rules, and constraints of time.
In this dimension, children are in their element. Incredible learning starts here.
When children enter into explorative, unstructured play in nature, their brains are learning how to focus, problem-solve, and practice language through action in an instinctive process.
In fact, children who are allowed to play in outdoor spaces among trees and gardens have better concentration, are more creative, and have more inter-gender socialization, than children who are limited to equipment-focused playgrounds or adult-led structured play. More time spent in nature also helps to reduce symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
This tells us that natural features, such as water, forest, gardens, rocks, logs, and small shelters — such as tipis — develop the children’s cognition and ways of being in a very positive way. Children who play in nature grow up to hold stronger values around conservation, compared with children who have not connected with nature much.
Aside from these benefits, playing outdoors helps to strengthen children’s immune defenses, lessening the severity of allergies, as children gain exposure to animals, plants, and soil. The old notion of ‘Children need to eat dirt’ will only happen if we unplug them, and move them outdoors to let them play in the mud.
In every area of their life, children benefit from getting back to Mother Earth and finding their own way to do this.
Play wild in green spaces
Green spaces can be anywhere that is beyond the manmade, such as vacant allotments, creeks, lakes, parks, gardens, forests, and the beach.
There is some element of risk in green play, but on the other hand, with vigilant supervision in places around water — and around other dangers — you can see the rewards for yourself and know the risk is worth it. After all, don’t we put our children in cars every day for the benefit of convenience? It’s about having perspective. The unwritten gems we get from unstructured play outdoors are even better than convenience — it’s learning at its best!
How to encourage unstructured play outdoors
With so many gizmos, toys, and games with black and white rules, it might seem strange to undertake unstructured play outdoors at first. You may feel like you are wasting time and that you are bored, or you don’t see the point. My response is so much of our day revolves around demands, rules, and stress — it’s actually really important that you do allow some time to just ‘be’ instead of ‘do’.
By giving time to ‘being’, instead of ‘doing’, you are allowing your parasympathetic nervous system to balance out the stress hormones — such as cortisol and adrenaline — which are constantly being made in response to stress.
Without this downtime, our adrenals become fatigued, leading to an array of physical and mental health disorders in the long term. Adrenal fatigue is not just for the old or middle-aged, as children can suffer from it too.
Learning healthy lifestyle habits, such as spending time in the peaceful zone of nature, frames us to perceive that we have the ability to cope with life’s ups and downs — simply by playing on a freeway.
As children, we can understand that nature heals and is always there to comfort us when we need it.
Begin by allowing your child to guide the play. Try not to make too many rules or expectations. Let the experience be organic and see what happens.
Try to see the world through your children’s eyes. A small leaf can be overlooked, but turn it over and discover some insect eggs.
Spend time playing and exploring outdoors for no other reason than to have fun, relax, and enjoy.
In a world where spontaneity, quietness, connection, spirituality, and calmness are often sacrificed for more important things, isn’t it nice to lose yourself in the universe of a tiny shell, or pebble?