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The Power of Place and Natural Play

To this day, the smell of pine transports me back in time to a place among the top branches of a Norway spruce that stood at the edge of the park in our neighborhood. I liked to climb high above the ground and look beyond the rooftops to the natural spaces all around me. With the wind in my face, I gripped the rough branches and felt the exhilaration of adventure. I imagined what it would be like to fly. There were days when I thought I could. Today, the tree is gone, but the vista from that vantage point remains firmly rooted in my memory and always makes me smile when I think of it.

Was there a special place where you went to think, to explore, or maybe just to escape from the world for a while? Maybe it was as simple as digging a hole behind the garage in your back yard, or as grand as acres of land to claim as your personal playground.  For some it might be a bend in the creek where you dammed the water flow, experimenting with rocks and sticks until the water spilled over the top and continued its journey downstream. For others, maybe a corner of the woods held special appeal…a place where you could escape the watchful eyes of your parents just long enough to begin to figure things out for yourself.

A sense of place comes into existence when personal meaning is attached to a specific location or setting. The term is often used in relationship to the unique characteristics that define a specific area within a larger space, but can also be used to convey the feeling of human attachment and belonging. Research shows that a healthy sense of place is vital to our emotional, functional and cognitive wellbeing. The geographer Anne Buttimer (1980) has described our relationship to place as an exchange between home and horizons of reach. Home embodies our desire for rest, territory, security, and community.  While horizons of reach represent movement, range, adventure, and innovation. Buttimer notes that these complementary poles of human existence function geographically, socially, and imaginatively. When the home and reach of our imaginations and our social affiliations are fulfilled in the place where we live, we enjoy centered lives.

We underestimate the importance of these experiences. The power of place and nature play in children’s lives serves a purpose far more significant than merely passing time in the backyard. This “free play” provides a unique environment that is missing from passive indoor activities such as watching television or using electronic devices. It also differs from organized sports activities that, while an important part of keeping kids fit, lacks the flexibility of independent creative play that is so important in developing self-control, self discipline and children’s decision-making ability. According to the Children & Nature Network, a national non-profit group designed to encourage and support organizations working to reconnect children with nature, children are smarter, more cooperative, happier and healthier when they have frequent opportunities for unstructured play in the natural world. Children who play outside are less stressed, more creative, less likely to become sick, experience improved concentration and exhibit a range of positive social behaviors.

Unfortunately, many children have become increasingly disconnected from nature. Today, young Americans spend about half as much time outdoors as their parents did. Causes range from parents fears of danger in the outdoors to loss of natural surroundings in neighborhoods and cities. Combined with the temptation of indoor activities such as television, computers and video games, a disconnect from nature has reached epidemic proportions. As a result, a wide range of physical and cognitive disorders have surged. Young people are losing touch with the natural world at a time when their ecological literacy is not only crucial to their own health, but also the wellbeing of future generations and the future viability of our planet.

Fortunately, there is a growing movement to help children reconnect with outdoor activities and restore a healthy balance. The 2005 Richard Louv book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder has created an increased interest in children’s environmental awareness. Since then, national efforts such as the America’s Great Outdoors initiative are developing a program for conservation and for reconnecting American’s to our nations lands and waters. The first lady Michelle Obama’s program “Let’s Move Outside”, is designed to inform teachers, students and parents of outdoor activities and provide them with the locations of nearby parks, playgrounds and forests. Nonprofit conservation organizations are also creating more programs that create opportunities for children to reconnect with nature in areas where geographic limitations create barriers for easy access. Even policy-makers are recognizing the need to address the growing need for the increased ecological literacy of school age children by introducing legislation that will implement sustained institutional changes to our public education system.

Faced with increasing environmental challenges, tomorrow’s leaders must be prepared to understand the connections between human and natural systems and make decisions for the benefit of all. Place attachment, the emotional bond that a child has with a specific location, will play a significant role in encouraging pro-environmental behaviors in the future.

Plus, nature play is just plain fun and creates memories that will last a lifetime.


Buttimer, A., 1980. Home, Reach, and the Sense of Place. In A. Buttimer & D. Seamon, ed­s., The Human Expe­rience of Space and Place. London: Croom Helm.


1 Comment >

The call for inclusion of environmental education into our formal curriculum requirements has gained little ground for decades. However, with the advent of the web and digital technology, the parameters of possibilities have changed and children now have the world at their fingertips and environmental education delivered through digital media has the tremendous potential to transform their worldview.

Appreciation of the natural world was a high priority in my family and environmental education was a natural part of my upbringing. I had the fortunate opportunity of experiencing the best of city and country living, depending upon the time of year. The wide-open natural spaces that surrounded me as a child not only made for a fabulous playground, but also made me realize that I was part of something far greater than myself.

I lived on the shores of Lake Erie during the school year and Huntington Beach was my preferred place to play. Many times, I would sit on my favorite rock on a pier that jutted out into the lake and gaze out over the water and wonder what Canada looked like on the other side. Or I watched, awestruck, while a sudden storm appeared on the horizon and swept toward the shore; its dark clouds illuminated with bolts of lightning. I knew exactly how long it took to dash from the beach to my back door and waited until the first raindrops hit my face before making a speedy retreat.

In the summer, I spent hours exploring the forest and fields just outside the backdoor of our family farm in Pennsylvania. I knew every twist and turn of the bubbling stream that ran though our pasture behind the big barn. I discovered hidden springs that fed the stream and captured tiny minnows and crayfish that lived among the rocks. I loved to ride my Shetland pony to the overlook at the highest point of our property and imagine that I was the first person to explore the wilderness that I saw before me.

I have many fond memories of my adventures in nature, but sadly, times have changed. Backyards and neighborhoods that once echoed with the sounds of children playing hide and seek or kick-the-can are now strangely silent. Pick-up games of soccer or baseball have now been replaced with complex, organized after school schedules that keep kids busy from the time they step off the bus until it’s time to go to sleep. In between, they are kept entertained with a wide variety of digital devices that deliver content that is sure to have a significant impact on shaping their young personalities.

Today, children in the United States are surrounded by a culture of media, with a significant amount of time spent on watching television and using digital devices. Therefore, media has a major impact on their physical, cognitive and social development. Most recent studies have primarily focused on the negative effects of children’s entertainment programs and link excessive exposure to deficits in achievement, sedentary habits and antisocial behaviors. However, it is also widely admitted that monitored exposure to positive media, such as educational television, has been positively linked to increased school readiness and enhanced social competence.

While nothing can take the place of learning basic skills like reading, writing, math, geography and science, utilizing multimedia and web-based resources can transform rote exercises into real life learning experiences and actually improve proficiency and interest in these areas while expanding classroom time for budget strapped school systems. Engaging children in diverse and dynamic learning environments can fuel the imagination and spark a love of learning that will last a lifetime.

Let’s face it. Digital technology is here to stay. The web has completely revolutionized human communication. Digital networks are where we share information and ideas. So, if we can’t get kids to nature, why not bring environmental messages to them to them using their preferred means of communication?

Ok. I hear the thunder of dissent in the distance. One might say that delivering environmental education to kids via digital media is a paradoxical notion. How will this get our nature-deprived kids out the door and into the fresh air any faster if we are delivering information through the very devices that keep them inside in the first place? Fair point. I have wrestled with the same question as a parent myself. Surprisingly, there’s a silver lining here. First, experience proves that kids are inherently curious about nature and generally adopt eco-friendly behaviors quite willingly. But further, providing them with links to other kids and organizations that are engaged in environmentally friendly activities, not only expands their eco-literacy, but also proves to be a powerful motivator in getting kids involved in eco-friendly behaviors and activities themselves. And… it improves their communication skills as well. They become better readers, writers, and listeners. The interconnectivity of the web also allows children to discover remote places they might not experience otherwise and learn about the people who live there.

It may not be the dawn until dusk outdoor experiences some us remember from our youth. It may be even better. We need to adapt our thinking to make it so. Technology is the tool and it’s the message that matters.

John Muir, an eminent conservationist, writer and founder of the Sierra Club once said, “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity…” His words still ring true over 100 years later.

We must teach our children to celebrate the natural world by protecting the environment. Using the latest innovations in digital technology to deliver environmental education to students in the classroom, not only has the potential to improve achievement and engagement, but it will also instill an appreciation for nature that will ensure future leaders will place a high priority on environmental stewardship. Because every child deserves to play on the beach, and splash in a stream or stand on a mountaintop and feel the powerful connection to nature in their own personal way.

I look forward to your comments and contributions.