Let the children play

The Artdog Image of Interest 

There’s a special magic that happens when kids play outdoors in an unstructured way. Last week’s Image of Interest discussed NPAs, or Natural Play Areas in parks, and their value. But lower-case natural play areas don’t just have to be in parks.

Lucky are the children with access to a farm or a big back yard that consists of something other than manicured grass and a plastic swing set–although kids tend to make do with whatever they’ve got. More varied terrain does tend to help get the creative imagination going.

Creative adults, especially those who grew up with access to interesting natural play areas, almost invariably get a smile on their faces when they think about kids playing outdoors–but in fact that’s getting harder for children to do as years pass.

There’s a record number of kids in developed nations–kids who seemingly have all possible advantages going for them–who suffer from depression and anxiety disorders. As Peter Gray has written in Psychology Today, “Rates of anxiety and depression among children and adolescents were far lower during the Great Depression, World War II, the Cold War, and the turbulent 1960s and early ‘70s than they are today.”

Gray and many others point to the decreasing amount of play time children are allowed, these days–especially unstructured play time–as a source of the trouble. Running wind sprints or practicing your pitching skills on a flat field–while possibly enjoyable and valuable–are WAY different from unstructured play in a natural play area.

But all too often we see parents or other caregivers worry more over the potential dangers of outdoor play–from overexposure to the sun to air pollution–than about the ill effects of too little outdoor play. “Supervise your child carefully,” parents are warned. Supervise, certainly–and not all areas are equally safe for all ages. A little common sense, especially where toddlers are concerned, is well-advised.

But when they grow out of the toddler stage, don’t forget that appropriate developmental needs change. And, believe it or not, there actually are physical and psychological benefits to doing things such as sledding, walking barefoot in the woods, or rolling down a hill. Even simply getting dirty can be good for the immune system. Of course, kids have known this for eons.

We adults should relax a bit, and let them do it.

IMAGE: Many thanks to CafeMom for this image. It’s taken from the excellent article by Jacqueline Burt Cote, 6 Reasons Your Kid Should Play Outside, According to Science.

A place for kids “gleefully doing their worst”

The Artdog Image of Interest

Welcome to Imagination Grove in McLean, IL, a place where more unsupervised play is allowed.

What if kids were allowed to pick flowers, build forts, break off branches, and carry away rocks from public parks? To make extra trails through the undergrowth, to dig holes? What’s the worst that could happen?

If you’re like a lot of grownups, you’re probably envisioning hard-compacted soil, hillsides denuded of flowers, and desolation. In some settings, particularly the more fragile, endangered areas, you’d be right.

But a lot of the current kid-generation’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents have memories of being at large and creatively free, in wild or semi-wild places, where they did all of those things and came back from largely-undamaged natural places with a new and deeper appreciation for the natural world we live in.

Matthew Browning, a former Park Ranger, sought out an area in Sweden where he cold study natural play zones where kids were bound by very few rules. And no, these places did not escape unmarked. But Browning found that “after millions of kid-hours of use by children gleefully doing their worst, these play zones remain functioning natural areas. The damage wrought by kids was comparable to that from hiking or camping.”

Grownups being grownups, they’ve now created an acronym for areas reserved in public parks for such use: NPAs, or Natural Play Areas. But it’s a positive movement all the same. As Katherine Martinko of Treehugger writes, “It’s time we let the children play, let them cultivate relationships on their own terms with the beautiful forests around us.”

We won’t save what we don’t value. A few beaten paths and play-forts are surely worth the fate of the planet, wouldn’t you say?

IMAGE: Many thanks to Slate’s article Let Kids Run Wild in the Woods, by Emma Marris, for the photo from Sugar Grove Nature Center in McLean, Illinois