Some of my favorite childhood memories were formed outdoors. Whether playing on my own or with a group of kids. Often times, my dad and I would go on nature walks. Sometimes we skipped rocks or set paper boats to sail, or simply raced sticks in the current. At the time, I didn’t think about the benefits of outdoor play. Today, as a mom and a play therapist, I think about them often. I experience them.
“You need to spend more time with your bare feet on the earth.”
Last year, during a particularly stressful time in my life, my then 12-year-old said, “You need to spend more time with your bare feet on the earth.” As usual, his wisdom stopped me in my tracks. I was awestruck. “How can he be so right?” I asked myself. “How can he see me more clearly than I am in this moment?”
That year was the first I didn’t even bother planting a vegetable garden. The previous year, when my husband was deployed, I learned I did have a breaking point. It’s the point at which I don’t make time for the outdoors. Under stress, I cut out time with friends, then time doing things for myself, and then time in the yard. That’s when I know things are really bad.
My history of enjoying the outdoors doesn’t just come from my time with my father. It’s in my marrow. Both of my grandmothers and my mother loved gardening and doing their own yard work. Mom still gardens. And my grandmothers tended to their flowers and mowed their lawns until they simply couldn’t. I believe they both held on to their homes as long as they could to take in the outdoors. If I’m not enjoying the outdoors, something is wrong.
Fortunately, I have since changed my schedule for the better. I spend more time outside. And I spend more time with my children.
This morning, my children and I spent most of our time enjoying the benefits of outdoor play. We explored the newly voluminous creek and temporary waterfalls after a night of thunderstorms. We got soaked. We got muddy. We slipped. Sometimes, they argued.
Benefits of Outdoor Play
I listened as my children discussed the best way to navigate the terrain and avoid slipping from their usually trustworthy logs. What I observed:
- They solved problems together
- They helped each other jump and balance across the creek
- They picked each other up
- They joined friends in their exploration
- And since then, they have been relaxed and cooperative
- They asked to go off on their own (and I let them)
One of the benefits of outdoor play is the vastness of the overlapping space where their inner world meets their outer world. This potential growth-promoting space is not confined by walls and the normal rules (“indoor voice, please”). Rather, they tread out on their own and explore the breadth, depth, and boundaries of their capacities. As they explore, they discover and organize. They develop skills that simply can not be taught in schools or found in the pages of books.
My Favorite Benefit of Outdoor Play: It’s a Message of Unconditional Acceptance in a World of Conditional Value
There are a lot of resources available that elaborate on the benefits of outdoor play. One benefit, however, that I want to shed light on is this: Nature is for everyone. Nature is free. Nature doesn’t break the way that toys do. It doesn’t cost money (or, rather is shouldn’t if everyone has access to safe parks, but that is another blog post). The sun shines on everyone, no matter who they are, what they look like, or what they have been through. It is an unconditional bounty just for being. Time in nature can be especially healing for children who have suffered trauma. It offers a message of “you matter” to those who don’t experience that they have worth and value just for being; for those who don’t feel unconditionally loved and accepted.
The consistency, unconditionality, energy, and presence of nature remind of the parent and the play therapist that I strive to be. To be that person I need to take care of myself: to put my mask on first and to fill up my cup, as they say. For me, I need to keep my connection with nature. What I have learned, in addition to the benefits of outdoor play, is that one doesn’t outgrow them. I saw it in my grandmothers, I see it in my mother, and I experience it for myself. Part of taking care of myself is making sure that I take the time to listen to the birds, to feel the breezes on my face, to watch the butterflies dance with the flowers, and … to feel my bare feet on the earth.
Make time for outdoor play–for yourself and for the children in your life.