Durango Nature Studies


The power of outdoor play benefits us all

I feel like it has been a stressful year in our neck of the woods.

Political divisions and economic stressors have been exacerbated by drought and wildfires. Casual conversations throughout town indicate that it has been an exhausting year on multiple levels for many people. Hopefully, with the midterm elections now behind us, and early snows and forecasts portending of a more typical winter, there is a bit of relief from the stress.

It’s during these stressful times that I remind myself to take time to play outdoors. Some days it’s easier to do than others, but research universally shows that play is important for our physical well-being, our mental health and social connections.

Prioritizing play seems paramount. Perhaps that’s why the Finnish schools allot 15 minutes of play every hour and still maintain top rankings in math and science. American schools place great significance on meeting educational standards, but we increasingly see schools providing children with regular access to recess, indicating that school administrators recognize that regular doses of free time improve the ability to concentrate during class time.

At the Nature Center, we are entering the final week of our fall programs. Our staff educators and volunteer naturalists have hosted nearly 1,800 students this season. School visits to the Nature Center consist of lessons and experiments on science and nature as well as discovery hikes, but we also allow students time to play. It’s during these free times when we see children’s curiosity take root.

They make connections beyond what has been demonstrated during the instructional time. We witness leaders emerge as they embark on building forts, creating sculptures from natural materials or leading games. Meanwhile, more introverted students connect with the world around them on a deeper level.

We have also purposefully built in more unstructured time during our summer camps, our after-school enrichment programs and even during birthday parties at the Nature Center. This free time inevitably induces discovery, and social structures emerge. Instructors and counselors ensure children’s safety, but when adults step back and provide children the freedom to play, we routinely see curiosity ignited and creativity emerge in magical ways.

It may not be a big surprise, but a recent study out of Clemson University and North Carolina State University shows a substantial decline in unstructured outdoor play among middle school students. Academics and organized sports demand more time from this age group. This research correlates with increasing rates of stress and social isolation among adolescents. The trends seem to deepen as we age. It is becoming such an epidemic that doctors now prescribe outdoor play. It is a travesty that we must be told to do something that is so innate to our happiness.

So regardless of how busy or stressed you or your children feel, be sure to take just a few minutes to get outdoors and play each day. We are fortunate that we have so many places to play – starting with our own backyards or along the Animas River Trail. As we enter the twilight of 2018, maybe we just need to organize a giant game of tag at Buckley Park.

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