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.

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