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Grounded Through Play in Natural Environments
By Ruth A. Wilson, Ph.D.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a report on the importance of play in promoting healthy child development (Ginsburg, 2007). This support from the medical community is certainly welcome and helps to dispel some misunderstandings about the value of play. Play, to some, is viewed as “a waste of time,” and an example of “off-task behavior.” (Wardle, 2007). Many early childhood specialists, however, have long recognized the importance of play and have defended its rightful place in schools, homes, and communities.

What’s not always clear in discussions about the value of play is a definition of what play actually is or what forms of play have the greatest impact on healthy child development. Many times, the role of the environment in fostering play is also overlooked. This discussion is not intended to address all of these concerns, but will, instead, focus on the value of play in natural environments.

Play in Natural Environments
“Natural environments” include natural elements as essential or important components of the environment. Natural elements are materials that are present in or produced by nature, such as water, plants and animals, rocks, soil, and sand. Other than a sandbox, many playgrounds for young children do not include natural elements as essential components. In fact, play for young children has been treated as separate from the world of nature - and this is cause for concern.
Children need play, but they also need positive interactions with the natural world. These two needs are easily combined and offer special benefits for young children. While children can find ways to play anywhere with almost anything, some environments and materials are more favorable for engaging in creative play than others. Children participate in more creative forms of play (including fantasy and pretend play) in “green” or “natural” areas than in more traditional playgrounds or indoor playspaces (Louv, 2006; Moore & Cosco, 2006). 
Play in natural environments also tends to persist over longer periods of time and involves more complex social interactions than on traditional playgrounds. Boys and girls are more likely to play together and treat each other fairly in natural environments (Louv, 2006).
Play in natural environments is generally safer than play on more traditional playgrounds.  Physical injuries and aggressive behaviors are more likely to occur on the traditional playgrounds. Children are also more likely to resolve their own conflicts in a natural environment and engage more readily in cooperative and constructive play (Hines, 2005).

Children Divorced from Nature
Children need nature.— They need the rich stimulation nature provides for healthy development socially, physically and mentally.  (Wilson, in press). Children also need frequent, positive experiences with nature to help them understand and appreciate the natural world (Chawla & Hart, 1995; Wilson, 1996). Unfortunately, many children today are deprived of opportunities to interact with the natural world on a frequent basis. When children are given the time to play, it is often in a commercialized, computerized, and/ or sanitized environment.
Richard Louv (2006), in Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, discusses some of thenegative impacts of play in a non-natural environment. Louv links the absence of nature in the lives of children to some disturbing childhood trends, including the rise in obesity, attention deficit disorders, and depression. 
Children divorced from the natural world tend to develop unfounded fears and misconceptions about nature (Wilson, 1994). While there are some elements of nature for which we have reason to fear (poisonous spiders and snakes, for example), unfounded fears get in the way of appreciating the natural world in a positive way.
Some children fear earthworms, songbirds, and butterflies. The cause of such fear is probably based on their lack of familiarity with other living things. These fears can lead to an unhealthy aversion to nature (Wilson, 1994; Wilson, in press) and a “psychological detachment” from nature (Slade, 1991). Fear and detachment work against the development of a positive environmental ethic and a healthy “ecological self” (Wilson, 1996).

Learning to Care About the Environment 
While children should begin caring about the environment at an early age, it is neither appropriate nor fair to tell young children to save the Earth. The present state of the environment calls for a great deal of concern, but it is not a concern to be placed on the shoulders and minds of young children. Even a four-year-old boy understood this. When asked if he should help save the Earth, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I don’t even know what the Earth is” (Wilson, 1994).
Young children are too young to have an understanding of the Earth as an interconnected whole. It is also unfair to ask them to fix something they didn’t break. Telling young children to save the Earth can lead to feelings of increased fear and helplessness. This is not the way to foster a positive environmental ethic (Wilson, in press).  Giving children rich opportunities to play in natural environments is a much better approach to the development of a life-long commitment to caring about the world of nature.
Play in natural environments offers considerable benefits for children and for the natural environment. Children experience increased health benefits, stronger concentration skills, and enhanced social interaction skills. They also develop an emotional bonding with the natural world, which will serve as a solid foundation for a  lifelong environmental ethic. Play in natural environments helps young children become grounded in a positive sense of self, not to mention an understanding and appreciation of the natural world.

Ruth Wilson, Ph.D., is a Professor Emeritus of Special Education at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. Dr Wilson has focused much of her research and program development efforts on early childhood environmental education.

Chawla, L., and Hart, R.A. (1995). The roots of environmental concern. The NAMTA Journal, 20(1), 148-157.

Ginsburg, K.R. (2007). The importance of play in promoting healthy child development and maintaining strong parent-child bonds. Pediatrics, 119(1), 182-191.

Hines, S. (2005, March). Go out and play. Landscape Architecture, pp. 128-136.

Louv R. (2006). Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin.

Moore, R.D. and Cosco, N.G. Developing an Earth-bound culture through design of childhood habitats. Natural Learning. Online [http://www.naturallearning.com] (accessed November 15, 2006).

Slade, A. (1991). A developmental sequence for the ecological self. Master’s thesis. University of Montana.

Wardle, F. Play as Curriculum. Early Childhood News. Online [http://www.earlychildhoodnews.com] (accessed January 31, 2007).

Wilson, R.A. (1994). Preschool children’s perspectives on the environment. Conference Proceedings. Troy, OH: North American Association for Environmental Education.

Wilson, R. A. (1996). The development of the ecological self. Early Childhood Education Journal, 24(2), 121-123.

Wilson, R. A. (in press). Creative Play in Natural Environments. London: Routledge.