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Child’s Play

Articles: Child’s Play
Unstructured play and discovery help our kids find their way in the world. Photo: Pixabay CC
Unstructured play and discovery help our kids find their way in the world. Photo: Pixabay CC

“Environmental stewardship isn’t rooted in knowledge-based education, but is grounded in early experiences in which children feel love for and oneness with their natural surroundings”
–David Sobel, Beyond Ecophobia

What is Play?

In old English plegian meant, “to exercise,” and in Middle Dutch pleyen is “to leap for joy” or “to dance.” Today we most often use “play” in reference to engaging in a competitive sport. Play—as in to leap for joy—seems to be a critically endangered activity for modern children. The whole notion of childhood as a time for play, and even the idea that our kids would engage in an activity for enjoyment rather than as a serious or practical purpose has become rare. It seems that many of our children no longer know how to play, and, when given the opportunity to go outside, quickly become bored and whine at the backdoor to be let back in. A Nature Conservancy survey found that many teens explained that they chose to stay indoors due not only to a lack of places to play, but also due to a lack of interest in, or a fear of, nature.

As both a parent and educator, I worry about current educational practices, parenting trends, and the continuing diminishment of both time and green spaces. It is clear to me that in order to remedy this dire situation, time spent playing in nature must become an ordinary, everyday experience rather than an extraordinary one. I would agree that our children are suffering from a type of attention-deficit, but it is a deficit of the right kind of attention from the mentors in their lives. Enough with the adult-supervised play dates and after-school sports; encourage your child to play, explore, and discover the forgotten “wild bits” in your neighborhood and backyard.

Camping at Shorty Creek. Photo: Byrne family
Camping at Shorty Creek. Photo: Byrne family

Nurturing Biophilia through Outdoor Play

[pullquote]…if children truly are to be our hope for the future, we must prioritize their right to a childhood filled with play in wild and semi-wild natural settings.”[/pullquote]

Studies have shown that between the ages of five and twelve, it is not uncommon for children who play outdoors to have a mystical or transcendent nature experience. People who have felt this sense of timelessness and connectedness with nature are profoundly affected; it has been described as a sense of being both separate and a part of the whole, and it causes a deep bond. This sense of continuity provides the empathy for a life of caring about the natural world. Ant-lover E.O. Wilson coined the term biophilia, and described it as the instinctive bond between human beings and other living systems. Our biophilia nurtures a sense of wonder and delight and a feeling of connection with the natural world. Researchers who have studied environmentalists found that they all had something in common–as children, they spent lots of time rambling in neighborhood woods and fields and had a parent or teacher who cared about nature.

It is important to provide children with the knowledge and skills they will need to succeed, both in school and in life, but schools, teachers, and parents also need to respect a child’s innate desire to play. Play has been misunderstood and devalued, when in fact it has profound learning implications. Children who engage in daily, unstructured outdoor play develop empathy, resiliency, and independence; they learn how to observe, figure things out on their own, and to take risks. Above all, our kids learn to find their way in the world, as they wonder, ask questions, and make discoveries. What is needed is a paradigm shift: if children truly are to be our hope for the future, we must prioritize their right to a childhood filled with play in wild and semi-wild natural settings.

Alana Byrne and fellow wild child, Nori Dixson. Photo: Byrne family
Alana Byrne and fellow wild child, Nori Dixon. Photo: Byrne family

Growing Gardeners

My goal is to encourage new ways of thinking about urban environments and to increase biodiversity and biophilia through community awareness and engagement. This includes the creation of wild urban parks and nature-based playgrounds, organic gardens for our schools, Backyard Wildlife Sanctuaries, and arthropod-friendly parking strips. Urban dwellers can join this re-wilding movement by turning a portion of their high-maintenance grassy lawn or parking strip into a garden or a Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary. Reducing a turf-grass lawn will significantly lower your home’s carbon footprint while providing much-needed habitat and connectivity for urban wildlife. By planting native trees and shrubs, adding a brush pile, providing a water source, growing flowers and herbs, and providing a pesticide-free environment, you and your family will delight in the surge of life that will accompany your efforts.

Invite your child to help you create a garden, and take a trip to a nursery to choose flower or vegetable starts or seed packets together. By engaging your children in designing, planting, tending, harvesting, and eating foods they have grown you will be nurturing their physical, spiritual, and intellectual wellbeing. Not only that, but by getting their hands dirty and breathing in the healthy, bacteria-rich, and happiness-inducing soil, your children gain the knowledge and experience they need to develop sustainable and healthy habits. Native plants attract a myriad of large and small creatures that live above and below the ground. Your daily encounters with urban backyard wildlife will expand your family’s nature knowledge, as you and your children observe lifecycles and seasons and begin to learn about the flowers, leaves, berries, seeds, insects, arthropods, tiny mammals, and birds that you encounter.

It is time to throw off society’s shackles and unleash your children. Let the truth be known: happy and healthy kids are those that climb trees, splash in puddles, eat home-grown vegetables, ask questions, make mistakes, and love to get dirty. Nurture your wild child and prepare to be enchanted.

Alana Byrne. Photo: Tracey Byrne
Alana Byrne. Photo: Tracey Byrne

Keeping it Simple

Children love tools and equipment. A good starter kit might include:

  • a magnifying glass, binoculars, and a jar that can serve as a bug keeper
  • lots of loose parts (i.e., rocks, sticks, and chunks of wood)
  • shovels, buckets, kid-sized wheelbarrow
  • sandbox, tire swing, treehouse
  • sidewalk chalk, jump rope, bouncy balls
  • hula hoops
  • set up a tent, tarp, or pea-vine teepee
  • sprinkler, kiddie pool, squirt guns
  • identification guides


  • explore the wild patches in the alleys, pocket parks, and parking strips
  • backyard birdwatching
  • bug counts
  • worm bins and composting
  • plant a garden, containers, pea-patch, balcony, or raised bed
  • Citizen Science projects: FeederWatch, NestWatch, The Great Sunflower Project
  • Nature drawing journal, pencils, crayons, and watercolor paints

Further resources for nurturing your Wild Child

Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart in Nature Education, David Sobel, Orion Society, 1999

Fun with Nature: Take-along Guides, a series of titles from Cooper Square Publishing

Golden Guides, originally Golden Nature Guides, Western Publishing

The Nature Connection: An Outdoor Workbook for Kids, Families, and Classrooms, Claire Walker Leslie, Storey Publishing

One Small Square, a series of eleven books by Donald M. Silver and Patricia Wynne, McGraw-Hill Education

Acorn Naturalists, www.acornnaturalists.com

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology YardMap Network, www.birds.cornell.edu Search: YardMap

National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife Habitat, www.nwf.org 

Portland’s Nature Play Areas, www.pdxparent.com Search: The All-Natural Playground

Seattle Children’s PlayGarden, www.childrensplaygarden.org 

Seattle parks, www.parentmap.com Search: Find Your Wildwood

Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Backyard Wildlife Sanctuary, www.wdfw.wa.gov/living/backyard





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