I was born in 1975 and “Go outside and be back by dinner” was a common directive from my mother back then. Behind my house stood an undeveloped hill, and “The Hill” was where my sisters and I went when my mom sent us outdoors. My childhood was also filled with Girl Scouts, dance classes, and community soccer, but my best memories and my most formative experiences come from the times my mother wanted nothing more than to get me and my sisters out of her hair for a few hours.
A growing body of research in early childhood development is revealing the critical connection between this type of exposure to nature and the developing brain. Children who spend immersive time playing in nature tend to be less anxious and better able to focus, and to have fewer health issues and more emotional resilience than children who don’t. Nature play allows children to choose their own adventure, based on the amount of challenge and risk they feel ready to take on at any given time. Should I walk across that log? What will happen if I balance these three sticks? I want to move this tree stump; can I carry it myself? Do I need help to move it? Experiences like these teach children to build awareness and confidence in their abilities and decision making. We want our children to have lots of these experiences before they become teens and begin making decisions with more consequences.
Nature (on any scale) fires up a child’s developing brain in a way nothing else can, and the benefits last well into adulthood. Playing in autumn leaves in childhood offers a joyful play opportunity, and that rich sensory experience becomes linked with the emotions of play. When that child becomes an adult, the earthy smell of autumn leaves, the way they crinkle and crumble from touch, the colors against the ground, all carry with them positive feelings from their childhood.
When I think back to my childhood, The Hill dominates my memories. In reality, I probably spent less time on The Hill than I did at soccer, Girl Scouts, and dance. It is the power of nature play, linking rich sensory experiences with high emotional stimuli, that makes my childhood experiences on The Hill loom large in my memory. Every child needs a special nature place, big or small, that meets them where they are and gives them what they need. And every adult needs to have that special nature place in their heart, connecting them with feelings of peace and joy, whenever they might need it.
Live in Philadelphia and want to find nature near you? Visit naturephl.org
Live in Montgomery County and want to explore Wissahickon Valley Watershed Association’s nature preserves and trails? Visit wvwa.org.