When people ask me what I write about — what I do — I often get strange looks. It appears that dedicating oneself to unstructured play and connecting children (and adults) with nature can be perceived as a frivolous thing. I get that. I mean, it is play, after all. People tend to associate play and exploration with fun. In turn, they associate fun with anything but serious. But here’s the thing: This subject is anything but frivolous. In fact, I propose it is quite serious.
If you think about it, if you take the issue of today’s childhood — the well-documented and increasing gap between children and nature — and look at it in its entirety, it’s really quite an enormous issue. A societal issue requiring a societal response. Here are just a few lenses we can use to look at the issue. Each of these is a post or series of posts in their own right, so these are simple “thought bubbles” for the moment. Consider:
Public Health: Childhood obesity rates are skyrocketing, as is the medication of children for ADHD. Childhood and adolescent depression are also on the rise. Consider how spending time in nature, being active outdoors, playing, and having fun might impact these health problems and be part of a wellness and disease prevention paradigm.
Education (and reform): Mandatory recess. Establishing reasonable and thoughtful homework policies that impact not only the lives of students, but of educators, parents, and families. Protecting play-based learning in Kindergarten. On and on. We cannot expect kids to get outside and play if we do not provide opportunities for them to do so, or value those opportunities in the learning readiness of all students. Additionally, environmental education is a vital, viable win-win educational opportunity to enrich the school environment. Its hands-on, real-world approach is a powerful tool for engaging all learning styles.
Urban Planning: Planning community green-spaces, nature trails and community-connecting bike and walking paths. Creating safe walking routes to school. Sidewalks in neighborhoods. Traffic patterns. You name it — urban planners have a great power to create and refit healthy communities that foster time outdoors.
Social Justice: How are poor areas impacted in greater ways? Is it safe to go outside some places? What can be done about that? In areas heavily populated by recent immigrants with a different, and often more deep connection to the land, how are we engaging them in programs and efforts? What could we do better? What do they need?
Conservation: Without a connection to nature, what will the next generation do? One cannot protect what they do not know. Who will take the jobs of the people retiring in the conservation field, if kids grow up with no interest or connection? Who will vote to protect land, species, etc.? Who will become members and donors of NGOs that work on conservation issues?
Quality of Life: This one is key. Time outdoors. Unplugged time. Time to make connections to the land, ourselves, our families, and our communities in more meaningful ways. Time to recharge our batteries. Time to simply be. Time for children to play, which is how they restore. This time — this magic time of unplugging and connecting — is a powerful way to be a happier, healthier person. Doing so can help you be a better parent or mentor, a better employee or employer. A better you. How can society not be served by better versions of us all, young and old alike?
Steeped in awe and wonder, time spent playing and exploring the outdoors is indeed, quite fun. It is also a very important issue, and quite serious. It requires all of us to work together — professionals from a variety of disciplines, parents and grandparents, educators and caregivers, and concerned citizens. I hope you will join me. We have lots of work to do. But luckily, much of this worthy work is, as it turns out, PLAY!
See you outside! – The Grass Stain Guru