By Liza Sullivan, M.A.
Children are smarter, more cooperative, happier, and healthier when they have frequent and varied opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors.”
I wanted to provide my children with a meaningful summer filled with plenty of time to play. So in 2010, we applied to be one of six families across the country to participate in the first-ever national Park-A-Day KaBOOM! Summer Challenge. KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit whose vision is having places to play accessible to every child in America. In 50 days my 3½ -year-old twins and I visited over 50 different parks, playgrounds, and public playspaces throughout the Chicagoland area. Photographs and my regular blogs posted on KaBOOM’s online community were intended to raise awareness of outdoor playspaces and inspire other parents to play outside with their children. Reflecting on these 50 distinct experiences, I saw how regular outdoor play opportunities had a major impact and supported my twins in becoming:
Strong, fit, and healthy. By the end of the Challenge, my children's strength, agility, coordination, and endurance increased dramatically. They pushed their bodies and minds to new limits, and played on equipment in different ways. Even at nature preserves, such as Highland Park’s Heller Nature Center, they climbed trees, jumped from rocks, and walked through trails. When we came home, there were no longer struggles getting them down for a nap or to bed.
More able to appropriately assess risks. At a Winnetka Alliance event last spring, Joan Almon, executive director of the U. S. Alliance for Childhood, encouraged parents not to make play risk-free, but rather allow children as much risk as they can handle. I tried to follow this advice. When my twins asked me if they could get hurt, I warned them that falling was a possibility, but that I trusted them to make decisions based on their own abilities and comfort levels. They did just that, without any injuries, and with growing self-confidence, pride, and ability to coach themselves through difficult persona challenges.
Friendly and confident meeting other children. Preschoolers are just learning to interact socially. In early summer, if my twins wanted to play with another child, they asked, “Mom, can you ask her what her name is?” I modeled for them how to introduce themselves and ask to join the play. They quickly felt more comfortable independently entering new social situations, sharing, compromising, and listening to other children’s ideas. These are basic skills of starting a friendship through play.
Creative and imaginative. Walking into nature preserves was like stepping into storybook illustrations. In natural surroundings, such as Melody Farm Nature Preserve (Lake Forest) and The Grove (Glenview), my children acted out their favorite tales, taking on the roles of the characters. At Winnetka’s Crow Island Woods, my daughter lay down with her eyes closed, arms folded across her chest, calling to her brother, “Come back! I am waiting for you to wake me up with true love's kiss.” What fascinated me as a parent and educator, and what I did not expect, was that the open-ended, magical environments of nature preserves prompted far more creative play scenarios than traditional playgrounds.
Curious learners. My twins learned to slow down, observe, and notice details. Their wonder about things seemed boundless. After an outing, we’d visit the Wilmette Library in search of books with more information, and this piqued their interest in reading. The more written information we collected either at the playspace or the library, the more they wanted to read. Many nights I wrote down their experiences and reflections they dictated to me; then they illustrated on paper their most vivid memories. These were natural, fun ways to reinforce the benefits of outdoor play, foster art and pre-literacy skills, and encourage their innate desire to learn.
Bonded to nature. Over the summer I noticed my twin’s beginning awareness and love of nature. I tried to foster affection and fascination for living things by observing with them and sketching any small treasure we collected. My daughter found a dead dragonfly at Wilmette’s Keay Nature Learning Center. We took it home and drew it. Examining it led them to notice its intricate, patterned wings. I believe that this and other direct experiences in nature at a young age will promote a later commitment to preservation and conservation of our natural resources.
I grew up in Wilmette, but until I participated in the Challenge, I was unaware of the surprising number of parks, playgrounds, and nature preserves in or near our community. Some of these spaces have brochures and maps, others have guides and even children’s exhibits. Most are underused. With the exception of some traditional playgrounds, we were either alone or with one or two families. The benefits of these facilities to a child’s development speak greatly to the power of the play movement which I advocate, and which is growing in the U.S. I encourage you to explore these resources this spring and summer.
· “Children and Nature 2008: A Report on the Movement to Reconnect Children to the Natural Word,” Children & Nature Network.
· For more information on the Challenge, visit kaboom.org/summer_challenge.
· For more information on places to explore with your family and outdoor play ideas, visit the new “Let’s Play” section of the Alliance website at: wwwwinnetkaalliance.org.
Liza Sullivan, M.A., is a board member of The Alliance, an adjunct faculty member of Erikson Institute, and the co-founder of ThroughPlay. She was formerly the associate vice– president of Education at Chicago Children’s Museum. Liza holds a B.A. in Elementary Education and Psychology from the University of Iowa and a M.A. in Learning Sciences from Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy. To contact Liza, email: Liza@ThroughPlay.com. This article first appeared in the Spring-Summer 2011 issue of Early Childhood, the newsletter of The Alliance for Early Childhood..