Observations from a Camp Counselor: Kids Need Natural Play

Maddie Caldwell is an education intern at the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center and a senior at the University of Michigan majoring in Environmental Science with a specialization in sustainable development and environmental stewardship. She developed a passion for the environment and connecting kids with nature from many years spent at summer camp as both a camper and counselor.

This fall between wrapping up final projects in my second to last semester and working as a part time intern at National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center I find myself reminiscing of the days of play dates and spending every last minute of daylight making up games and skits with my neighbors in the backyard. It amazes me now to know that what I thought were just silly games and distractions from my homework were actually essential to my physical and mental health and development.

Just Play

kids playing in leaves.
In today’s competitive and fast-paced society many people think that letting kids “just play” is a waste of time, however research shows that children who play together and organize games learn better problem solving skills, and experience a constructive way to avoid social isolation.

Additionally a study from 2010 found that 78% of educators stated that their students were better able to concentrate when they regularly participated in unstructured play outdoors.

 While getting kids to play outside may not seem like a difficult task, today the average child in the United States spends 27% of their day watching TV compared to only 1% of their day outdoors.

As someone who is not at all far removed from this generation of indoor kids, and can already see a disconnect between many of my peers and nature, I am worried to see what impact the trend of disconnection from nature will have on future generations (potentially my future children) and the environment/world in which they live.

Kids’ busy schedules of school, organized sports, and extracurricular activities already leave little time for free play outdoors, even without the hours spent in front of electronic media each day. After a long day of school, homework and extracurricular activities lounging around and watching TV, playing video games, or texting with friends can be an easy way to relax for kids and eventually becomes part of their daily routine. With less free time to play and explore outdoors (and less encouragement to do so) kids are missing out on an important opportunity to grow, learn, and to just be kids.  

Learning through Play in Nature

In the past few years I have been lucky to have several jobs and volunteer opportunities working directly with children and from these experiences I have learned that the kids were more engaged and enthusiastic about learning and being active when they had freedom in leading and creating games and activities. 

As a camp counselor, I have seen groups of six year olds that were previously distracted, homesick, and hesitant to interact with each other connect over catching toads and building a fort out of fallen tree branches. A shy ten year old who was afraid to play competitive sports broke out of her shell and made friends by teaching others a game in the lake. While I would like to take credit for the advancement that kids make when I work with them, I know much of it is due to what they learn from playing with each other and with nature.

Beyond improved mental health and social skills, positive experiences playing outdoors can also help children develop a love and interest for the natural worldI know this was true in my life.

Prescribing Play Outdoors

Given all of the benefits that natural play and the outdoors offer, we really can’t risk letting kids stay inside with the TV. So doctors- write a prescription for daily time outdoors, teachers- assign homework to create a new game, and parents schedule a play date in the backyard: get your patients, students, and children to go outside and play!