Get Out(side) - A Natural Play Phenomenon

The concept is a bit ambiguous because it requires us to stop telling kids what to do. Mike Marshall the CEO of Kinsol Timber Systems explains Natural Play.

Kids today deal with a threat that is totally unlike anything from previous generations. For all the good that technology and the urbanization of our societies has done, it has an unintentionally devastating impact on our young people. Kids are being raised without a meaningful relationship with nature, and increasingly, are sedentary for a shocking number of hours each day, glued to one screen or another.

With unprecedented diagnoses of psychological and behavioural disorders, we have ample evidence that children are not thriving in today’s world. In keeping with our remarkable scientific acumen, we develop chemical cocktails and prescribe them with unfettered confidence that we have, yet again, got one up on Mother Nature. There is a reckoning coming, and the signs are staring us right in the face. Obesity is nearly three times what it was in the mid 1970’s, with the World Health Organization determining that about 400 million children are currently either overweight or obese. This is appalling, and it is substantially attributable to inactivity and the devaluation of outdoor play.

What is the purpose of Play?

For most of us, playing is what we do when we need a break from the seriousness of life, whether it be the intensity of classroom learning or a long work day. It’s a mental break from our “real work.” We have effectively defined Play as the thing we do that does NOT have purpose. This thinking is the predictable outcome of a culture bent on organizing and standardizing, even as it lacks understanding. To think of Play as separate from Purpose, is to fundamentally miss the underlying role of the behaviour we call Play. The evolutionary biologist Nathan Lents argues, with rapidly growing consensus, that Play is the apparatus used by humans to collect information and develop skills ranging from fine motor coordination, to creative and aspirational thinking, to social behaviour and bonding.

If devaluing the act of playing wasn’t enough, the restriction placed on the environments we play in, is impossibly stifling to kids and adults alike. The fences we erect to demark areas of limitation, the scripted play opportunities, the use of inorganic materials and unnatural colours, are such dramatic deviations from why the behaviour exists in humans that it’s no wonder we see rapidly escalating dysfunction across the physical, social, and emotional development of our kids.

So, what’s at the root of this migration away from playing in our natural environment toward this more structured and sterile play environment? American author and journalist Richard Louv suggests the societal transition from rural to urban life, as a way of meeting the resource and opportunity needs of an ever-growing population, is a significant contributor. In this move to the urban we become disconnected from the rural, in particular, the wild forest, and we’re left to fill that need at the local municipal park, where grounds are expertly manicured, forest fall is immediately cleaned up, and synthetic, contrived play structures serve as a poor substitute for Mother Nature. It is from this super-controlled environment that parents, teachers, designers, civic leaders, and most importantly, kids, have created a groundswell of demand for access to playing in nature; and this movement is called Natural Play.

The concept is a bit ambiguous because it requires us adults to stop telling the kids what to do or even limiting what can be done. Though it imagines children back in the forest, playing on natural formations of earth, stone, and trees, it critically relies on setting kids up to be able to explore their environment free of instruction and limitation. It operates on the principle that children, left to create their own play experience, will develop and hone the crucial survival skill of self-regulation.

Just, get outside

As naturally emotive creatures, made somewhat worse by the presence of adrenaline, humans must navigate more than just data in, data out. We must remove our impulsive and emotional reaction in order to improve our circumstances, and those of others. This process is known to early childhood educators and caretakers as self-regulation, the process by which a child, dealing with a sudden change in their environment or expectations, manages the emotional rush of anger, fear, or sadness, in order to mitigate or improve their circumstances. This foundational skill empowers kids to empathize with others, thoughtfully communicate needs, build relationships, grow confidence and self-worth, establish and enforce important personal boundaries, and help others to grow their self-regulatory skills. It is literally the growth of emotional intelligence, a fundamental attribute of thriving and healthy people.

Life has embedded risk, so teaching children life skills in the absence of risk is really just setting them up to learn a hard reality later on. One major component of the Natural Play movement is the presence of risky play. When playing in the wild forest there are all kinds of natural risks that create wonderful learning opportunities; however, when we create natural play spaces, we need to think about it through a slightly narrower lens. In most cases, municipal parks need to serve all ages and a wide variety of skills and abilities. In order to normalize the risk across such a potentially wide range of users, the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) has worked with playground designers to produce safe play environments, without losing too much of the critically important risk. As the movement is fond of saying, “playgrounds should be as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.”

It really is no surprise that Natural Play has emerged with such widespread interest and vigor. The evolutionary compulsion to get outside and play is buried under decades of repressive behaviours that have created generations of frustrated adults and confused children; but it can stop. Whether you access nature through a natural playground or you get out into the great outdoors, just get outside and reconnect with your natural self!

Mike Marshall is CEO of Kinsol Timber Systems, and its subsidiary KinsolPlay, an island-based design-builder of Natural Playgrounds in Western Canada.

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