The Value of Unstructured Play

As natural history interpreters, we know that time spent in nature, especially engaged in play, is critical to a child’s development. Not only does outdoor play lead to increased physical activity, it can alleviate symptoms of ADHD and asthma as well as promote creativity, self-discipline, problem-solving skills, cooperation, and confidence.  Playing in nature reduces stress by lowering blood pressure and heart rate, and leads to a reduction in anxiety and depression.  Yet too often today’s children are over-scheduled and over-stimulated.  They rush from school to soccer practice to flute lessons and then do homework.  Weekends are packed with deadlines, chores, activities, and much more.  The value of unstructured play in nature, where children can explore the world around them using their imaginations, is the stuff of our childhoods and it is quickly fading away. 

The Woodland Sprites program, at McDowell Nature Center, is one way we are helping children play in nature.  This once-a-week, three-hour program for ages 4 to 6 years is held completely outdoors regardless of weather conditions.  Participants learn through exploration and play in a supported environment where all learning is child-initiated and child-led.  Staff have target skills to facilitate and activities to suggest, but children are encouraged and allowed to follow their own interests and curiosity. 

A typical day begins with parents dropping off their children for the program.  A ‘base camp’ has been set up prior to their arrival and once everyone is ready, the group walks to the camp.  To start things off, staff lead the children in a circle game to check-in, review boundaries and rules, and introduce various props they can use.  Then the group is dismissed into the woods for unstructured play and exploration.  As the children start to explore the woods around them, their imaginations take over.  A few of them may gather within the boundary and start building fairy houses while another group may gather to collect sticks for a fort.  They sit on the ground and get dirty under the careful supervision of staff who join in with the unique games, storytelling, and treasure hunts the children invent throughout the day. 

During the program, children learn by example and through their own trial-and-error.  They experience the importance of showing respect for themselves, others, and the environment.  They learn that it is okay, and encouraged, to get dirty playing outside! Most importantly, they learn to be children. Through providing the community this unique, innovative program, we are able to offer a new service that fills the gap between structured pre-school programs and children’s desire to explore the world around them. 






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