When my mother was a little girl, a favorite aunt took her for a walk in the woods to spot wildflowers each spring. It was a tradition my mother upheld each year when she had her own children. She’d talk in whispered tones as she pointed out snowdrops, violets, jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, and spring beauties. My father was a more avid nature lover and often took us for walks in the Cleveland Metroparks where he let us lead the way on hikes, climb on fallen trees, and skip stones in the river. These were pivotal experiences for me.
But time I spent in nature without adults left the biggest impression. I’ve written before about how the woods behind our house enlarged my imagination and sense of wonder. A more unlikely place I held dear was right next to the library parking lot. Many times after we picked out books, my mother let us go outside while she stood in line to check out. We’d go down a small incline where a tiny stream wiggled past. Most of the year it was just a trickle coming from the open mouth of a drainage pipe, but to us it was mesmerizing. We’d crouch at the edge looking for insects and tadpoles. We’d drop in leaves to see if they’d float away. We’d add a rock to watch water riffle around it. Most exhilarating was after a rainfall, when water poured from the pipe. We were careful not to get too close because we’d lose this privilege if we got our shoes wet. Each visit to the stream was brief, ending when our mother called us to get in the car.
Not long ago I drove back to look at that spot. I found a tiny ditch between two parking lots, something I wouldn’t even notice unless I was looking for it. But because my siblings and I were free to investigate it on our own, it was elevated. It was a Special Place.
Such places are around most of us, no matter where we live. And kids can find them! It might be a rampantly green area behind an apartment building where it’s hard for mowers to reach. Trees to climb and small hills to master on empty city lots. A mini meadow or woods at the end of a cul-de-sac. A ravine or other backyard area left wild.
These places may seem inconsequential to adults, who tend to view nature as somewhere else, somewhere pristine and unspoiled. In reality nature is constantly around us and in us. Giving kids freedom to explore, observe, play, and get dirty allows them to make these tiny places a whole universe.
As Richard Louv reminds us in Last Child in the Woods, even small natural areas are better than playgrounds and manicured parks. They call up a more resilient and engaged way of being. When children spend time in natural areas their play is more creative and they self-manage risk more appropriately. They’re more likely to incorporate each other’s ideas into expressive make-believe scenarios using their dynamic surroundings—tall grasses become a savanna, tree roots become elf houses, boulders become a fort. Their games are more likely to incorporate peers of differing ages and abilities. Such outdoor experiences not only boost emotional health, memory, and problem solving, they also help children learn how to get along with each other in ever-changing circumstances.
And free play in nature helps children develop a kinship with the natural world. When researchers asked 2,000 adults about childhood nature experiences, they found those who participated in activities such as camping, playing in the woods, hiking, and fishing were more likely to care about the environment. Taking part in structured outdoor activities such as scouts and other education programs had no effect on later environmental attitudes or behaviors. The lead researcher, environmental psychologist Nancy Wells, surmised that “participating in nature-related activities that are mandatory evidently do not have the same effects as free play in nature…”
Time in nature, even a small patch of it, lets kids center themselves in something greater. As John Muir wrote, “Wonderful how completely everything in wild nature fits into us, as if truly part and parent of us. The sun shines not on us, but in us. The rivers flow not past, but through us, thrilling, tingling, vibrating every fiber and cell of the substance of our bodies, making them glide and sing.”