There are 3 key messages from these research studies to communicate to parents. Most importantly is the incredible value of simply encouraging their children to play outside. Although this might be easier in some climates than others, we are fond of recalling the old saying that there is no bad weather, only bad clothing choices. In addition to simply going outside, children should be exposed to the natural environment. This means not only outdoors on a playground but also outdoors in the woods or an open field with parental supervision, and the more exposure to green space, the better. This is healthy for all ages—infants carried by their parents, toddlers directly supervised, school-aged children more distantly supervised, and adolescents progressively granted more independence. Finally, when children are outside in the natural environment, they should be encouraged to participate in imaginative free play that they themselves (not a parent, not a teacher) direct.
University of Michigan’s Gaffield Children’s Garden
Like similar gardens throughout the country, Gaffield Children’s Garden at the University of Michigan’s Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arboretum has applied these guiding principles in creating a natural, engaging environment that promotes creative and independent play for the children who visit the garden. A grounding principle of Gaffield Children’s Garden is the modeling of easily replicable nature play for all visitors.
Loose nature parts play is accessible and can be easily incorporated in home spaces, neighborhoods, backyards, apartment balconies, parks, and schoolyard settings. Loose parts play invites imagination and divergent thinking opportunities, and supports curiosity about the natural world. What makes loose parts play so compelling is that there is no single way to play, and, for the most part, loose parts are also found parts: twigs, branches, stones, seed heads, water, and so on. These parts can be combined, moved, manipulated, redistributed, and reassigned many times over, taking different roles in different settings and play times. Whereas Gaffield Children’s Garden is designed for nature play, the various areas also provide models for parents and children to continue their engagement with the natural world even when not visiting the Garden. Suggestions for using these models, both indoors and outdoors, are summarized in Table 1.
Loose parts play is a type of self-directed play that can feature both small parts and large parts, each offering different elements of play and discovery. Stocked with tree branches, fence planks, stumps, and boulders, the Builder’s Garden invites children to create child-sized structures, practice communication and negotiation, and experiment with physics, engineering, and, of course, imagination. Forts are built and rebuilt, simple lever-based machines are constructed, and play features such as balance beams and tree stump obstacle courses are constructed by children according to their play needs. This is boisterous, gross motor play.
Conversely, Fairy and Troll Knolls are stocked with the tiny, subtle bits of nature—stones, tree cookies, bits of bark, flower heads, and found ephemera—that invite children to create tiny worlds for imaginary creatures. This tends to be independent and quiet play. Children employ small motor skills, imagining single dwellings or entire ecosystems. Both these ideas can be replicated to varying degrees in backyards, schoolyards, parks, and on apartment grounds or balconies.
In the Grower’s Garden, children play by watering, mulching, raking, and composting, and, more importantly, they taste foods as they grow directly from the garden plots, again with parental supervision. At home, plants can be grown in cups or pots on window sills, community plots, or backyards.
Water and mud play is a magnet to young children, offering simple opportunities to experiment with early earth science and chemistry concepts, to create rivers, streams, lakes, and bridges, and to concoct elaborate “mud meals.” Animal models indicate that interactions with certain bacteria present in clean soils may strengthen immune responses and support mental wellbeing.12 Families can enjoy mud play simply by setting up a couple of pots or tubs, one with water, one with soil or sand, and a spoon and cup. Waterworks play can be added by offering hollow tubes, such as bamboo or plastic tubing, and a funnel.
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