The Importance of Outdoor Play

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. ~John Muir


I can remember as a child running and biking and playing with my brothers all around the different neighborhoods that we lived in, with little adult supervision.  We careened crazily down hills on an old bike with no brakes and without helmets.   My grandparents lived on a farm in Michigan and my great-grandmother lived about a quarter of a mile away.  I loved to walk the dusty dirt road by myself to visit my great-grandma.  I remember the delicate crown of Queen Anne’s Lace that grew wild along the side of the road, the cows lazily grazing in the pasture and the bridge that I  leaned over to watch the creek swirling below.  Just watching, with no purpose or timetable.  It was summertime, and the insects droned and the heat shimmered and the swallows swooped.    I remember the woods across the street from our house in Maryland and the nervous thrill that I felt when a boy found a snake.   We built tents out of blankets draped over the clothesline, and we shot enemy soldiers from our treehouse.  In other words, it was not that long ago that children spent long days outside fully immersed in their own creative world.

In 2005 Richard Louv published the book, Last Child In the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder, which was one of the first books to document not only the decreased exposure of children to nature, but also decreased unstructured play for children in the out of doors.   He coined the phrase for this lack of experience with nature, “Nature Deficit Disorder.”  Mr. Louv draws a correlation between the rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders, stress related illnesses and depression, with the current wired, plugged-in, sedentary generation of children.  The publication of this book brought a heightened awareness of a problem that has been steadily growing.  I read this book when it was first published and I was immediately struck with the relevant needfulness of it.  Our children need nature in all of its unvarnished glory whether it is in a scrap of lawn behind the house or in the awesome grandeur of a cinnamon colored canyon wall.  Each presents us with a unique opportunity to nurture an awareness of, a curiosity about, and a reverence for nature.  Each presents a singular opportunity to nurture wonder.

Since the publication of Last Child In the Woods, there has been a gradually growing movement to get children outside.  The rise in “Forest Schools”and the “No Child Left Inside” movement highlight the slowly growing awareness many are having of the necessity of turning off and tuning in.   “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”

Two books that I used a lot with my children during our homeschooling years were Joseph Cornell’s classic, Sharing Nature With Children, and Anna Bostsford Comstock’s hefty tome, Handbook of Nature Study.

Although Joseph Cornell first published this slim book back in the 70s, it is still a treasure trove of fantastic ideas and games for introducing children to nature.  Mr. Cornell calls his teaching philosophy, Flow Learning, and it consists of four steps: Awaken Enthusiasm, Focus Attention, Direct Experience, and Share Inspiration.  One of the games in the book that I liked to play was, “Meet A Tree.  Meet a Tree connects us with trees in a memorable way. To play, divide the group into pairs and have one of each pair wear a blindfold. The seeing player—if old enough—leads the blindfolded player to a special tree, one that has intriguing characteristics. Upon meeting the tree, the blindfolded player feels the texture of the tree’s bark, sees how big the tree is by putting his arms around it, and explores the tree’s branches and leaves. The guide can silently guide the player’s hands to interesting places on and around the tree…Meet a Tree connects us with trees in a memorable way.” (~Jospeh Cornell)

I first learned about Anna Botsford Comstock’s book, Handbook of Nature Study, when I was studying about Charlotte Mason’s educational theories.  In 1993, after we returned from living in England, I decided to homeschool my children because of my dissatisfaction with our school system.  One of the books that I read in my preparation for homeschooling was Susan Schaeffer Macauley’s book, For The Children’s Sake.  That book introduced me to Charlotte Mason, a nineteenth century English educator, and I recognized that many of her educational practices still undergirded the academic philosophy in the little English school that my children had attended.  I went on to  read Charlotte Mason’s six-volume educational series.  One of the things that Charlotte Mason advocated was Nature Study, teaching natural philosophy, and the importance of children being out-of-doors.  The way to study nature was through the use  of nature diaries-now more commonly known as “nature notebooks”.

“As soon as he is able to keep it himself, a nature-diary is a source of delight to a child. Every day’s walk gives him something to enter: three squirrels in a larch tree, a jay flying across such a field, a caterpillar climbing up a nettle, a snail eating a cabbage leaf, a spider dropping suddenly to the ground, where he found ground ivy, how it was growing and what plants were growing with it, how bindweed or ivy manages to climb” (Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, p. 54).

Anna Botsford Comstock was a leader in the Nature Study movement.  She was born in 1854 in Otto, New York and attended Cornell University.  She received a degree in Natural History in 1885.  Beginning in 1897, she taught Nature Study at Cornell, and most famous for being one of the first to bring her students out of doors to study nature.  In 1911 her book The Handbook of Nature Study was published.  Although it was expected by some to lose money, it became a standard textbook for teachers, was translated into eight languages and is still in print.

Books for Outdoor Inspiration:

This Book Was a Tree:  Ideas, Adventures and Inspiration for Rediscovering the Natural World by Marcie Chambers Cuff.

In the opening paragraph of the Introduction, Ms. Chambers writes: “A funny thing happened on the way to the twenty-first century.  In between uploading, replying to texts, friending and unfriending, listening to podcasts, and Googling, we all drifted off the trail  It’s a complicated story, since, in many ways, our complex networked lives have mostly been improved with high-tech devices and gadgets.  But, in the end, technology has displaced our exposure to the real world.” (pg xi)  I resonate to this introduction, because our grappling with the benefits and detriments of technology, especially in the lives of our children, is a complicated thing.  The advantage of outdoor play for children is well documented and so nurturing a healthy relationship with nature is a profound responsibility for adults who interact with children.

This book is full of wonderful projects.  The materials required for most of the project are readily available.  Some of the projects do require the use of tools, like utility knives, handsaws, and drills, and so may require adult supervision.   But I have found that children love to know how to use tools and feel such a sense of pride at being competent enough to create truly useful things.  Some of the projects in this book are: constructing a pinhole camera, creating a terrarium, making a tree stump sundial, and growing sprouts.  Within each chapter, readers will discover a principle for reconnecting with the natural world.  Each initial project includes ideas for expanding learning, for exploring more.  For example, in the sundial project you are encouraged to take time, just ten minutes every single day, and record your observations about the natural world around you—“what you see, what you smell what you hear.  No metaphors, no interpretations, no comparisons, no abstractions, just reality.”  Just be present and let things just be.

Ms. Cuff explains the science behind the projects and yet also invites readers to become scientists themselves— to brainstorm, decode, probe and understand the natural world.  And then, record those observations.  This is a great book for parents to use with younger children and for older children to draw inspiration from themselves.

Check out Marcie Cuff’s blog at

Imagine Childhood: Exploring the World Through Nature, Imagination and Play by Sarah Olmsted

In the Introduction to Imagine Childhood, Ms. Olmsted describes what it was like to return to the woods of her childhood. “Walking into them [the woods], seeing the forts my siblings and I built decades ago, I felt a sense of place and potential that I hadn’t in a long time.  This return to the space of my early years brought back the mind-set of my childhood—the openness, the curiosity, and the endless possibilities.  This book is structured around the same premise, one that asks you to travel back to your ‘woods’, to look at the world from that perspective again, and to share the adventures with your own children as they discover theirs.” (pg xiv)

The book is divided into three main sections which Ms Olmsted feels, and I agree, are the keystones of a healthy childhood: Nature, Imagination, and Play.  Within each section are essays and projects that plumb the depths of that category.  The projects in this book are some of the most creative and “out-of-the-box” projects that I have come across—super ingenious, fanciful and inspired.  I think that my favorite project in this book is the seasonal nature capes.  I am a great believer in capes. There is something so very magical about them.  I have lots of play silks that the children readily transform into capes and run so that the wind catches them and they they flutter behind lifting off into flight.  These seasonal capes not only embrace the magic of capes but also celebrate the seasons.  The basic cape is a simple hemmed yard of muslin cinched at the top with ribbon.  Then either using the templates provided in the book, or creating your own, cut seasonal shapes (leaves, snowflakes, flowers) out of fabric.  Sew these shapes onto lengths of ribbons and then sew the ribbons horizontally onto the  cape.

Another project that I really like is how to make tents.  Building forts out of blankets is a treasured childhood memory.  But these blanket forts tended to be a bit unstable and tottery.  However, with just some basic sewing skill Ms. Olmsted shows how you can make a simple tent for your child that you can attach inside to doorknobs and chairs, or outside to trees.  And with a few woodworking skills she gives instructions about making a simple freestanding wooden frame for a tent.  For a child, entering into a tent is entering into their own world, cocooned in their imaginative space, safe and shielded from any unwelcome intruders into that world.  Often, safe from us.

Check out Sarah Olmsted’s blog,

Earthways:Simple Environmental Activities for Young Children by Carol Petrash

“We must allow [children] to play with the elements of the earth, air, water and, carefully supervised, to experience the quiet power and beauty of fire.  Through nature crafts and natural toys and opportunities to joyfully experience and celebrate the seasons of the year with all that nature brings, we can hope to plant the seeds of a new attitude of reverence toward nature.  This childhood experience may then mature, when they are adults into a love-warmed thinking which will not allow them to treat the Earth as a possession or commodity that they have a right to exploit, but rather as a precious gift which it is their honor and duty to protect and enhance.” (pg 11)

If you are familiar with and resonate to the Waldorf educational method, this book is Waldorf through and through.  Written for both the classroom and the home, Earthways is divided into four chapters, Fall, Winter, Spring and Summer.  Within each chapter there are sub-sections: The Whole Earth Home and Classroom, Bringing Nature In: The Season’s Garden, Bringing Nature In: Seasonal Crafts, and Supplying the Missing Links.

The Whole Earth Home and Classroom section gives seasonal ideas about how to make your home or classroom more environmentally friendly.  For example, in the Fall the focus is on “Breaking the Throw-away Habit”.

Bringing Nature In: The Season’s Garden.  This is basically the Waldorf Nature Table.  This is a place to “celebrate the turning of the seasons and the treasures each season brings”.  So, if you have ever wanted to set up a Waldorf Nature table and have needed some ideas in how to do so, this is the book for you.

Bringing Nature In: Seasonal crafts. Each section is chock full of seasonal crafts using natural materials and the age appropriateness of each craft is given.  Here is a sampling of the crafts: Making leaf crowns, Wheat weaving, Pine Cone Bird Feeders, Finger Knitting, Pinwheels, Natural egg Dying, Dandelion Chains and Walnut Boats.

Supplying the Missing Links:  “provides activities that will allow the children to connect a product which they often use and usually purchase in a store with the source and process from which it comes.  The aim is that they will then have a subtle understanding of their strong connections with and dependence on the Earth and an experience of making things for themselves.” (pg 13)  For example, making butter, washing wool, planting a garden, berry picking and candle dipping.

I really love this book.  It exudes the gentleness of Waldorf education.  The pen and ink illustrations are charming.  Although out of print, but is readily available used online.

The Green Hour: A Daily Dose of Nature for Happier, Healthier, Smarter Kids by Todd Christopher

“…simply taking those first steps of being in, of discovering, of knowing the natural world—something that has been slipping away from the overscheduled, media-driven childhood of today—is of critical importance for a young person’s complete and healthy development” (pg ix)

Todd Christopher created the National Wildlife Federation’s original website and this book grew out of that endeavor.  It is a handbook for parents to help them reconnect their families to nature.  “ A green hour is simply a time for families to unplug, unwind, and recharge as they reconnect to the natural world—and to each other.” (pg 7)

In the Introductory essay Mr. Christopher describes the loss of direct childhood experiences with nature—long days spent out of doors in child-directed activity.  “University of Maryland researchers have found that outdoor and nature-based activities—from walking to camping—now compromise less than one-half hour per week of a child’s time….The days of children exploring the natural world around them at their own pace, in their own way, have largely given way to full schedules and highly structured activities.  But even more notable is the fundamental shift in how children and youth now spend their free hours—‘green time’ has bee replaced by ‘screen time’ to an astounding degree.” (pg. 3) And maybe that is just because children are following the patterning that we, as adults, are modeling for them.  How often is the television set left on as just background noise, with no one even watching it?  Is music always playing or is a podcast always on?  Can we ever be alone with ourselves and silence?  Can our children?

The beginning chapters of The Green Hour ascertain barriers that may keep a family from making a meaningful connection with nature.  There is an extensive section on safety and there are plenty of tips for making the green hour a significant and consistent part of a family’s routine.

Some of my favorite activities in this book are: making bug contraptions, hand-made bird feeders, keeping a tree diary, leaf walks and pond dipping.

Nature’s Playground: Activites, Crafts, and Games to Encourage Children to Get Outdoors by Finona Danks and Jo Schofield

“Imagine children climbing high among the spreading branches of an ancient tree or damming a tumbling stream with sticks and stones.  Imagine them crafting bows and arrows deep in the woods or watching in wonder as a crumpled dragonfly emerges fro its nymph case.  This is play in the great outdoors—imaginary games, exciting adventures, and amazing discoveries.  The natural world is a place for exploration, learning about risk, building confidence, and escaping into the imagination.  This book encourages adults and children to appreciate and enjoy wild places together and, above all, to have fu in the freedom of the great outdoors.”  (pg 10)

This book is divided into seven sections: Let’s Get Outdoors, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter, All Year Round, and After Dark.  In the opening section, Let’s Get Outdoors, the authors write about the importance of getting children out and interacting with nature, being more adventurous and less fearful, tips for sharing wild places, what to take when you go out adventuring and encouraging children to keep walking!  One of my favorite anecdotes in this section is a story that the authors tel about how, on a “very wet walk round a nature reserve, one young boy discovered that the rain had enticed masses of large black slugs out of their usual hiding places.  Tearing off his T-shirt, he began to stick slugs all over his chest until he was plastered with a slimy slithery back mess.  We all watched in amazement and even horror, yet nobody tried to stifle his enthusiasm.  At the end of the walk he returned the slugs lovingly to the undergrowth.” (pg. 19)

The authors detail how to make an “Adventure Bag”, an old knapsack that is kept tucked away under the stairs ready to accompany them on an expedition.  Inside the knapsack are useful things to aid in exploring the natural world, like: magnifying glasses, bug boxes, string, a penknife, notebook and pencils, and a first aid kit.  I thought that this was a wonderful idea, because you never know, even when walking just around the block, what you may discover or what may grab a child’s imagination—a bug that needs to be captured for identification, a flower that needs to be closely examined under a magnifying glass, or a spectacular sunset that is begging to be sketched.

Oftentimes we plan an amazing hike only to have the children less than eager to continue it about half way through!  There are some great game ideas in this book to encourage the children to keep walking—collecting games, alphabet games, hide and seek, and playing with sticks, to name just a few.

The seasonal chapters in the book not only have crafts to make, but also a lot of nature activities to do with children.  Some of the activities are, making perfumed potions out of flowers, making and using a sweep net to catch bugs, and following and identifying animal tracks.  Some of the craft projects are, making leaf crowns, making elf houses, and making ice mobiles.

This is a wonderful book with ideas that run the gamut from climbing trees and building wild dens to making bows and arrows form sticks and corn dollies.  You know a book is good when here are photographs of children holding snails and slugs, hands coated in mud, and hanging upside down from a rope.  Although out of print, it is readily available used, online.

 “Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” –  Fred Rogers

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