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 Natural Awakenings Lancaster-Berks

Let Them Get Outside! Let Them Get Dirty!: The Importance of Childhood Outdoor Play

Mar 29, 2013 01:13AM ● By Steve Carlson


…a ditch somewhere–or a creek, meadow, woodlot, or marsh…. These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin. Everybody has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches and the field, the woods, the ravines–can teach us to care enough for all the land.~ Robert Michael Pyle, The Thunder Tree

We live in the Information Age. Educators, parents and caregiving adults have never had greater access to resources aimed at teaching children and young people about issues related to sustainability and climate change. Websites, films, TV programs, curricula and enrichment programs touting the ideals of sustainability exist today to a greater extent than they ever have, and each holds, at some level, the goal of fostering the sensibilities that will help youth develop into good stewards of the Earth.

While these are certainly powerful tools in the ongoing greening of society, there is perhaps no stronger way to create a lifelong love for and bond with the Earth than good, old-fashioned outdoor play. More than activity within the planned confines of a playground or athletic field, outdoor play refers to open-ended time spent in natural landscapes. These are certainly represented by beaches, streams and forests; but parks, farms, edges of athletic fields and backyards can give children all the play-stuff they need to let their imaginations run wild.

Sticks, rocks, water, soil, branches, leaves and the living things found in such environments provide the tools for sustained imaginative play that is purely child-driven and outside the control and influence of adults. This type of play is not only important for children as they develop personal power and independence, but it also helps them develop a bond with the natural world.

Building on the ideas of Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson’s biophelia hypothesis, which maintains that humans are innately drawn to natural spaces, Richard Louv, a pioneer in the back-to-nature movement and founder of the Children & Nature Network, hopes parents capitalize on this innate attraction by giving their children time to play outdoors—something scientific research points to as key in developing the Earth’s future stewards.

In a paper published in Children, Youth, and Environment, in 2006, Cornell University Professor Nancy Wells found that, “Participating in wild nature activities before age 11 is a particularly potent pathway toward shaping both environmental attitudes and behaviors in adulthood.” Other studies have found the benefits of wild play not only in shaping future attitudes, but also in contributing to healthy physical, emotional and intellectual development.

A wealth of information supports the overall benefits of wild play, yet studies find that the amount of time young people are spending outdoors in general, and in unstructured wild play in particular, is decreasing. Such trends do not bode well in light of the developmental role of outdoor play and the negative effects of sedentary lifestyles that are growing among our youth.

It is becoming more and more difficult to deny that our relationship with our planet is at a critical crossroads. Inspired by the negative impacts humans have had on our environment, individuals and communities are looking closely at ways that they can not only live in harmony with their surroundings, but also protect them and ensure the Earth’s health for future generations.

While practical programs, legislation and household greening efforts are certainly important steps toward sustainability, when it comes to developing the environmental innovators and advocates of tomorrow, perhaps nothing is as valuable as a splash in a stream, building a fort the woods or digging a hole to China.

For more information about Richard Louv, visit Learn more about Edward O. Wilson at

Steve Carlson teaches middle school at the New School of Lancaster and writes about the local arts scene for

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