The Importance of Play

“There is always one moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in.”
–Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory (1940)

Free play is slipping away from children’s lives. Yet time spent building forts or exploring outdoors, caring for animals, pretending or problem-solving with peers are now being shown by a wide body of research to be essential to healthy development, spiritual attunement, and emotional survival. Open-ended play in places that offer access to woods, gullies and gardens, ditches, boulders, and bike paths enhances curiosity and confidence throughout life.

Play takes many forms. It may be best defined from within as a spontaneous human expression that relies on imagination and a sense of freedom. Players invent alternative contexts for conversation, visualization, movement, and interactions with real objects. They find release and involvement, stimulation and peace. Although play may arise anywhere, even in a cement cell, children are beckoned by the natural world to enjoy sensations of being alive.

While some benefits of play are obvious—fitness, fun, negotiating skills—the subtle, even sacred, ways play sustains spirit resist easy articulation. Excitement builds when children of all abilities are included in a playful and rich engagement with each other and the living world. Although societies tend to identify children and nature as property rather than as process, we are interconnected and patterned early on in ways that define us as adults. The observation and antics we bring to our first environments are transferred to every landscape of endeavor that follows whether in business, science or the arts.

Creativity develops through risk-taking, storytelling and secret world building. Engaging the local is a child’s work and play, the only way personal domains are enlarged. Certainly this process of self-discovery deserves to be treated with as much care by educators and families as the cultivation of literacy and the mastery of mathematical skills in schools. Yet we know little, it seems, about the intersection between play and the inspiration recreation draws from its physical context. What makes children gravitate to certain locales in search of comfort, security, community, self-awareness or beauty and avoid others?

A new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics says what children really need for healthy development is time for more old-fashioned play. This deprivation affects mental and physical health as well as cognitive and social capacities. How can our communities offer this life-enhancing experience that prevents the decline of mental health and offers happiness and healing memories? Where Do the Children Play? examines the creative magic that can arise when children are allowed and even encouraged to play with abandon. The film and its outreach seek to engage communities in a conversation about the role children and nature must have to thrive and be sustained. It seeks to build a movement based on the recognition that restrictive patterns of sprawl, endless suburbs and a variety of other cultural factors across America are altering children’s development.

You can find links to resources that can help you learn about outdoor play and nature here.