In the March 2020 issue of Contemporary Pediatrics, Terrill Bravender, MD, MPH, and Lee Smith Bravender, MEd, discuss the importance of nature play. This concept emphasizes the importance of undirected, free play in a natural environment. The benefits of this kind of play are significant. It increases activity, may decrease conflict among children playing, and allows kids to use their imagination and create their own world with its own rules. The article gives a lot of suggestions for clinicians and parents on how to facilitate outdoor play, mostly by creating spaces that encourage outdoor creativity. In addition, the authors provide nature play anticipatory guidance by age based on suggestions from Bright Futures.
In ordinary times, there are a lot of barriers to encouraging nature play. Clinicians who see children are incredibly busy, and the number of important topics to discuss at well child visits seems unlimited. The implementation for parents is also complicated. I am a working parent of 3 young children aged 5, 6, and 7 years. Our days are filled with school, Boy Scouts, soccer practice and games, softball, speech therapy, and more. All these things are good things; however, they are also very structured. This article was a good reminder to me as both a clinician and a parent that I need to allow time in our schedule for creative, unstructured play. For me, this means saying no to some good things, opening the back door, and sending the children out to be creative with minimal guidance.
Getting nature play during COVID-19
Of course, these are not ordinary times. As I write this, the United States is dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. The state where I live has closed all K-12 schools and I am working from home and guiding my kids as they continue their education with electronic learning. Every morning their teachers email me detailed reading, math, gym, and art assignments. My 7-year-old son’s gym teacher sends a list of activities for him to do: 10 pushups, 10 jumping jacks, 5 burpees, and so on. I appreciate the ideas and emphasis on physical activity. I also wonder if we are missing the point a little. This article has reminded me to utilize the green space around my house; make water, mud, sticks, and leaves available; and let my children get to work. Prepping our garden space, cleaning up our sticks, raking our remaining leaves are all projects my children can participate in and use as a starting place for more creative play.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that not all children have free access to green space or a door they can open into a big backyard. One way that clinicians can advocate for children is to support or start initiatives that create green spaces in cities and schools that need them.
As we wait for daily life to return to some sense of normal, take the time this spring to incorporate nature play at home and look for ways to encourage your patients and their families to do the same.
Kristy Luciano is a Physician Assistant who graduated from Midwestern University-Downers Grove Physician Assistant Program in 1999. She is an Assistant Professor and Director of Didactic Education at Midwestern University and serves as a Member at Large on the Board of Directors for the Society for Physician Assistants in Pediatrics.