By Henry Owen
Research proves that connecting with nature makes people healthier, happier and smarter. A great way — maybe the best way — for kids to connect with nature is through self-directed, free play in nature.
Nature provides the perfect setting and material for unstructured play. Nature is naturally full of loose parts: rocks, sticks, branches, logs, and leaves abound. Children use these raw materials to create and recreate their play space as they drag, stack, build and balance.
Nature is not uniform. The gaps between stumps are irregular. Branches are different shapes, sizes, and widths. All this irregularity not only benefits a child’s physical development as they have a virtually unlimited compilation of physical tests, but it also stimulates their intellectual development as they must quickly estimate changing distances and surroundings.
And play in nature is beneficial to our planet. We only protect that which we love. Nature play creates conservationists because it is through play that children grow to love nature. You must climb one tree before you are willing to fight for all trees.
In his autobiography, naturalist E.O. Wilson remembers how as a child he “pulled away the bark of a rotting tree stump” and found “a seething mass of citronella ants.” Wilson says this childhood encounter “left a vivid and lasting impression,” and he connects this experience with his later career as an entomologist specializing in ants. To protect our planet, must allow kids unstructured nature play and the time and space to form an emotional connection with nature.
Here is a spring nature play check list to help prepare you for a spring and summer full of nature play in West U. Post it on your fridge, and as you create meaningful nature connections, check off each item (multiple times, hopefully).
•Encourage your kids to flip over rocks, logs, or pavers in your backyard and see what animals are living underneath.
• Visit the nature play area at the Nature Discovery Center in Russ Pitman Park in Bellaire. Our nature play area is a beautiful shady spot where kids can build a fort, play in a sandbox, jump from stump to stump, and climb a tree. Bring a coffee and book for yourself, and schedule a long relaxing visit.
•During a rain storm, take your kids out to splash in the water coming out of your downspouts. Give them a few plastic cups and a funnel and they will play for hours learning about volume, developing pouring skills, learning about the rain cycle, and generally having a great time.
•Roll down a grassy hill. Remember this? Parents — lead by example on this one, and your youngsters will delight in watching you be silly and playful. There is a great rolling hill at Evelyn’s Park in Bellaire.
•Bring the family to the Spring Fling Festival at the Nature Discovery Center on April 7 for live animal encounters, crafts, games and interactive nature stations. Visit my-ndc.org for details.
•Connecting with nature is essential for child development and for the long-term health of our planet.
How many of these nature activities can you check off? Now go play outside!
Owen is the executive director of the Nature Discovery Center, 7112 Newcastle Dr., 713-667-6550.