The Magical Powers of Nature Play

The house is a mess. The kids are pushing each other’s buttons. I’m trying to tick a bunch of “to-do’s” off a list that never really seems to get any shorter. Every attempt seems to end in us all feeling more tightly-wound. Things are about to go pear shaped and I know there is only one thing for it.

It’s time to get outside.

Sometimes packing it in, packing a picnic and calling time out to escape into nature for a play is the thing that puts our days and weeks back on track.

I know this. Intuitively, from experience and because I enjoy reading up on the theme of nature play and the science behind how and why being outdoors is so good for us (read on for my attempt to summarise the science bit).

And yet. As a mum, wife and writer who works from home, un-ignorable visual cues of my still-to-do’s are EVERYWHERE and it’s often hard to remember why it’s important to press pause on the busy-ness, slow things down and invest in time outdoors. So here I am writing it down, reaffirming why I believe in the magical powers of outdoor play and recommitting to making the time to get outside a matter of priority for my family, so that we may all reap the rewards.

Abandoning ship and allowing my kids enough time for unstructured play in nature is something that I’ve had to work harder on these past few months. Until now, it was as easy as sending them into the back yard of the only home they had ever known, where there was an enormous sensory buffet on offer: kitchen garden beds to dig in and pick from, an expanse of green grass to roll and play on, a mud pie kitchen, a sandpit, an obnoxiously oversized second-hand trampoline. There was ample room to paint, kick a ball, run through the sprinklers on a hot afternoon. Our yard was surrounded by inescapable 6 foot fences with high latches and we could find a patch of shade to play in at any time of day. The yard was by far their (and my) favourite place to be at our old home; they could be messy, they could be loud, they felt free and they were safe.

Fast forward to living in our current rental home. It’s lovely and more than fits our need for a place to live while we build our “forever” family home, back on the land we have just moved off. The rental house itself is easily 3 times the size of the little post-war home we have always lived in as a family and it’s taken us a while to get used to the extra space here (more than one bathroom – bliss! Space enough for a dining room table to eat meals at inside – fancy!). The compromise is that there’s not much of a yard. Over the past few months I’ve noticed how this is impacting family life, and in particular, my high energy 3 and 5 year olds, who are compelled to move their little bodies. A LOT.

Our solution has been to get out and about more often and for longer. We’ve become seekers of the shadiest, quietest, least mosquito-infested parks and reserves on the south-side of Brisbane. Instead of quick pop-to-the-park plays between pick-ups, drop-offs and appointments, I’ve scaled back where I can on our fixed commitments so we can stay outdoors for longer. We set up camp. We investigate our surroundings…and then let nature and the kid’s imaginations do the rest. Rocks and sand become building tools on worksites, sticks become magic wands, fallen paperbark becomes secret scrolls or treasure maps. Siblings become friends. Nature weaves it’s magic over us.

For me, more & longer unstructured time spent outdoors is also proving rewarding and productive. Instead of trying to set up a craft activity at home to buy myself 20 minutes to get some work done or get a deadline met during actual working hours, I take my laptop to the park. After I’ve played with the kids for a while, I’ll sometimes be granted permission to retreat to the picnic rug to get a bit of work done while they continue to enjoy nature and each other. Of course, on some outings there is no work time to be gained and any anticipated ‘spare’ time is filled with pulling prickles out of little feet or refereeing arguments. On other days I simply join in and play. I remind myself that my work will still be there to pick up again after their little bodies are in bed asleep at night. This is the hardest thing to do for me sometimes, while the mental load of all the things I “should” be doing keeps pulling at the back of my mind. But stopping to play with my kids (or observe them playing with each other) is always always always worth it. Plus, I love being in nature myself. Always have. These excursions rest and rejuvenate my body and soul as much as theirs.

Now for the Science.

A growing body of research points to a plethora of positive side effects of significant playtime spent outside. In a nutshell: it is good for you and it is extremely good for your children. When children play outdoors they are more active. Being active in early childhood supports the development of the heart and lungs, helps maintain a healthy weight and develop gross motor skills. The kind of play children engage in outside – running on uneven surfaces, climbing trees, balancing on rocks, collecting fallen leaves, digging through mud, sifting sand through fingers – is associated with improved attention spans and cognitive function. Decision-making, problem solving, empathy, social and emotional skills…all strengthened by nature play.

Then there’s the cleaner air (thanks trees!), the immune-boosting dirt (hat tip to the tiny bacteria and fungi in every handful) and vitamin D from the sun which strengthens bones and muscles. Exposure to natural sunlight also helps regulate the body’s circadian rhythms, making it easier to fall asleep at night (Amen to that!).

There are more benefits to investing in play than can be detailed in this blog post…mostly because my troops are getting restless and it’s time for me to stop writing about how great it is to be outside…and go and actually BE outside 😉 Some experts in the field prescribe a minimum of 3 hours per day, and that’s what we’re aiming for. Although we’re still falling short most weekdays now that my eldest is at school, I’m feeling pretty good about the weekends. Some days grand adventures to new places are possible. More often we seek out local spots that are a manageable commute after work and school days, make do with the little patch of grass we have available at home, don gumboots and play in the mounds of dirt on the block our new house is being built on or take a walk down the street to fill our pockets with flowers, rocks and random bits.

The importance of the natural world and the value of playing in nature for children (and families and communities) is something I passionately advocate. It’s a central theme in a lot of the stories I write, and is particularly prominent in my debut picture book, which is set to be published later this year.

So here’s to the great outdoors, and to encouraging big and little kids alike to get out, get messy and get playful in nature!


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