Why Kids Need Unstructured, Outdoor Play

Playing outside can benefit children in ways that are more far-reaching than simply getting away from screens.

According to researchers Strife and Downey, “nature is important for children’s cognitive, emotional, social, and educational development.” Studies also show that nature can benefit children with particular conditions, such as improving focus for those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).

Rachel Palmer, an environmental education specialist with Metroparks of the Toledo Area, does her part to ensure children are given opportunities to safely explore all the natural surroundings the area has to offer.

“Connecting children to nature from an early age has many benefits to the child,” she says. “Studies have shown that students who are introduced to nature have improved achievement in core subject areas as well. When you make the world your classroom, learning becomes more fun and engaging. Children have a natural curiosity about things and want to understand why something is the way it is.”

Stacy Harr, MD, a pediatrician with ProMedica Physicians, agrees. She says play is important for problem solving skills and social development, as they learn to take turns and play with others.

Nature “Play Dates”

This year, the Metroparks joined forces with the 577 Foundation and the Toledo Zoo to obtain a grant for a research project conducted by Bowling Green State University to study how children play when given the opportunity to self-guide their activity in a natural setting.

“What we do is give kids these opportunities by setting up these nature ‘play dates’ as they’re called,” says Palmer, explaining that youth were given an assortment of typical toy room items and more nature-based items for them to manipulate.

The children did not always react to items the way researchers and officials predicted, Palmer admits.

“Maybe we thought it was a really good idea to have some kind of painting involved in nature play, but the kids didn’t react to it. So we had to go back to the drawing board and find something else. We also just talked to the kids and seeing what they wanted to do—that was a big part of building our nature play program,” she says.

Dr. Harr adds that unstructured play can lead to creativity as children find various ways to play with the same item. She explains, “There’s actually a study where they took a toy and had a bunch of kids and they showed them a couple things that toy could do. Then that group of kids just did that with that toy. Then they had another group where they just gave them that toy and that group came up with all sorts of things that the toy could do.”

That, she says, is problem solving and critical thinking in action.

It Supports Structured Programs, Too

While Palmer does not dispute the positive impact structured play can take in a child’s development, she believes letting them choose is equally important.

“Allowing time for the kids to guide themselves can calm them down so they’re able to focus more on structured programs, be it school or a nature program the parks are putting on,” she says, noting that much of life is based on routine.

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“If you look at a normal child’s schedule, it’s very structured,” Palmer says. “Wake up, go to school, three or four after-school activities and then they’re going to go home, go to bed and do it all over again. In that kind of schedule, they don’t often get a choice, to use their imagination and use those critical-thinking skills that are essential for all kids to develop.”

Nature Programs

Palmer says it’s easy to see the impact that Metroparks’ nature-based programming has on children’s lives.

“We find that the kids who come to these programs really do receive a connection to nature and the world around them by being out in the environment and having fun,” she says. “I think all the kids that came to these programs or participated in the grant have come out of it really enjoying themselves and maybe learning a few things without realizing it.”

If you’re interesting in giving your child some unstructured play, try setting up camp in your own backyard or taking part in a program by the Metroparks. One upcoming program is “Nature Play: Twilight Hours,” set for 7-9 p.m. Aug. 24 at Swan Creek Preserve. Designed for children in preschool through grade six and their families, the event allows children to build a fortress, storm a castle or any number of other play activities. (Visit the Metroparks’ program page or call 419-407-9701 to learn more.)

And don’t be afraid to head outside with them. “It’s important to set a good example for your kids,” says Dr. Harr. “Show them that it’s important to be active; get out and move. That’s something you should instill in them at a young age so they can continue it throughout their entire lives.”