Outdoor Living

Nature play every day

by Dr. Carla Gull

Many adults fondly remember long stretches of time unsupervised in the woods or park as children. Neighborhood kids built magical worlds, played games of tag, and wondered about the curious fungus growing on the tree stump.
Today many children are engrossed in electronics, structured activities, and homework, leaving little time or motivation for nature play. Add parental fears and safety issues and few children play outside in many neighborhoods. However, the benefits of nature play abound, making children and neighborhoods healthier, smarter, and less stressed.
Middlebury offers many opportunities for nature play. The Oregon Natural Play Initiative lists five types of nature play.
Structured play in a natural context – Think of the play structure at Riverbend Park, school playgrounds, etc. Children are outside playing on play equipment or with specific activities in a natural setting.
Unprogrammed play – This might include spontaneous or imaginative play. Children at Krider Gardens create a game together or pretend it is a fairy garden. This includes taking advantage of an unplanned fork in the road and building a magical fort with the materials found on the detour.
Immersed in nature – Think of a bike ride along the Pumpkinvine Trail, a hike at Riverbend Park, or a visit to Bonneyville Mill. Children are learning to be outdoors and gain confidence as they explore.
Nature as educator – Middlebury schools, Elkhart County Parks, and Middlebury Parks offer many opportunities for nature as educator. Also, slowing down to notice nature, using guidebooks, and noting changes in seasons educate.
Daily nature – Backyards or walks to school are perfect spots for daily nature. Take advantage to notice leaves interacting with light, a bee buzzing, or a full moon.
Most children have a regular recess time or trips to the park, allowing structured play in a natural context. However, nature play can be much more – allowing children to have a tea party next to a pond, go on a hike with adults for a short distance, listening to frogs calling in the wetlands, or watching a bird build a nest on the front porch. As adults in our community, we can encourage a good mix of nature play options, promoting regular time to enjoy the great outdoors.