What do you remember about your childhood nature play? Millions of Americans fondly recall playing outdoors in natural settings, doing things like:
These activities are all nature play: unstructured childhood play in “wild” areas, whether it’s the vacant lot next door, the local neighborhood park, or the “back forty” of your farm.
At its very best, nature play isn’t scheduled, planned, or led by adults, nor is it confined by grown-ups’ rules. Instead, it’s open-ended, free-time exploration and recreation, without close adult supervision. For many of us, this sort of nature play virtually defined our childhoods.
Why Is Nature Play Important?
There is a growing body of research data about the multiple positive impacts of nature play on children’s social, emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being. Richard Louv has done a great job of reviewing these benefits in his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder.
However, for Green Hearts'
mission the most valuable
impact of nature play is on
conservation. Multiple studies
in several countries, over more
than 25 years, have found
that frequent, unstructured
childhood play in natural
spaces is the most common
influence on the development
of life-long conservation values
and conservation behaviors.
Thus, for the task of
building greater future societal
support for conservation,
frequent nature play is more
powerful than formal
education, participation in
youth groups, or even the influence of parents and other
mentors. Nature play is strong stuff!
The Challenges to Nature Play
Unfortunately, many factors are converging to make nature play increasingly rare in American childhoods, including:
The unhappy result is that most American children no longer enjoy regular nature play. In fact, one study found that our children now spend an average of just 30 minutes per week in unstructured outdoor play.
The Environmental Impacts of Vanishing
Nature play has been found to be the most common influence on the development of adult conservation values. Now it is fading away. Without the lasting impacts of nature play, what will guide future generations into cherishing the natural world?
Many people believe that increased amounts of formal
environmental education might lead to more wise conservation behavior in our society. Unfortunately, research shows that the lasting conservation impacts of school-based environmental education are limited, at best. In fact, broader research finds that learning is not a prime determinant of most human behavior. Instead, many other factors drive our behavior, with our emotions and immediate needs often being the most powerful ones.
As a conservation organization, Green Hearts’ ultimate aim is to help make conservation behaviors a dominant value in American culture. To achieve this, we believe that we must find ways to put nature back into children’s hearts, not just into their brains. Nature play is the key to this challenge.
Restoring Nature Play
Nature play can be brought back! First we must expand public understanding of the importance of nature play -- an effort that is now underway across the United States. Then we must develop and implement structured (and hence replicable) ways of bringing unstructured nature play back to childhood.
Green Hearts is certain that this can be done, using methods such as:
* New approaches to neighborhood design and home
* The creation of schoolyard nature play areas;
* Development of nature play areas within community
* The expansion of nature preschools, where young
children enjoy daily play and explorations in green
Green Hearts was founded to help lead the way in this work. To learn more about how we are doing this, please review the "Services" portion of this website.