Sowing the seeds of outdoor play.


By Sarah Rossbach


Imagine yourself as a grandparent. Perhaps you already are one. It was only natural that the kids grew up, flew away and feathered their own nests. And you settled in nicely to your empty nest. Yet, not entirely empty…every so often, a disruptive, “invasive species” overruns your island of orderly calm: the grandchildren come to visit. While you welcome them,  they do present a challenge…what to do?

Instead of planting them in front of a screen, this is your opportunity to introduce them to the wonders of nature, wonders that will educate, engage, enrich and, ideally, exhaust. You don’t have to be a grandparent, of course. The idea is to exercise a young mind and body. It’s as simple as a walk in the park and —who can tell?—your efforts may start a beautiful relationship with the outdoors, as well as a deep grasp of the nature’s cycles.

If this sounds like a job for Sisyphus, you’re not alone. Educators and researchers have been struggling to strike a balance between indoor technology and outdoor play going on two generations now.  More on that in a moment.

To me, it feels odd and obvious to be writing about the advantages of playing outdoors. My own memories of my grandfather are of walking with him in a dense pine forest, smelling the deep scents, and running at his request to pick up twigs that had fallen to give to him for kindling. Alas, the over-programmed, lesson-filled and electronically addicted lives of today’s children has practically precluded free play and spontaneous outside activities. Indeed, now the concept of playing outdoors has been codified: Nature Play is a formal term used to describe the benefits of unstructured outside activity. Its proponents say that Nature Play enhances the “cognitive, creative, physical, social and emotional development of children.”

Cultivating an interest in (and identification with) nature and its forces may help your young ones discover a new fascination with the birds and bees, bugs and butterflies and their nurturing pollinators. We baby boomers grew up with unchaperoned and impromptu adventures in neighborhood open spaces, catching minnows or tadpoles, and dirt under our nails. Today’s children— granted this is a generalization—are strangers to their natural environment. In fact, they suffer from what child specialists and botanists diagnose as “Plant Blindness”.

Plant Blindness is a real concern. If you introduce a child early-on to how plants and flowers are necessary to our food chain, the well-being of humans, and the health of the planet, over the long run, he or she may discover a passion to work with nature. And there are lots of plant-related jobs waiting to be filled. Professional fields in what are called the growing arts—botany, ecology, horticulture, garden and nursery work—more and more go begging for suitable employees. Last year, 40,000 jobs in the growing arts went unfilled. Many organizations—such as botanical gardens, university agricultural departments, Garden Club of America— have sounded the alarm regarding this fall-off of interest on the part of school-age kids in the growing arts. The ripple effect of this trend is unknown. But it is also unpromising. Environmental stewardship, regardless of your politics, is not something that happens all by itself.

Educators in New Jersey (reminder: we are the Garden State) have prioritized outdoor play for wider-ranging reasons, including socialization, development of motor skills and overall emotional health. Getting students moving out in the air is part of the daily schedule and, in many cases, a component of the curriculum—from grades K through 12.

“Play is really the basis for all learning in early childhood,” says Kellen Kent, Early Childhood & Lower School Division Head at Chatham Day School. “And what better place to play than outside? Whether digging in the Learning Garden and sandbox, climbing and sliding on the playground, or running on a playing field or nature path—exploring the outdoors is how young children strengthen their connection with nature, build gross motor skills, and enhance brain development.”

Getting young teens and ’tweens to put their phones or game controllers down—and venture out into the world for a few minutes every day—is a more complex challenge. Woe is the parent or grandparent who makes the heretical suggestion that a child this age actually venture outside. That is where schools can make a big impact. Preparing students for college and beyond involves more than foundational pieces (reading, writing, math, etc.). The social/emotional component is critical to adolescent development. “For middle-schoolers, outdoor time is really a social activity,” points out Boni Luna, Head of Middle School at Morristown-Beard School. “This is where they develop relationships outside their families and navigate the murky waters of friendships and social exchanges. We have recess a half-hour a day and it’s mandatory to be outside, weather permitting. They play ball, walk around, just clear their heads and gain some internal time so they can reset.” In 6th grade, Luna adds, the students tend to segregate themselves by gender. By 8th grade they are more blended. The school psychologist is often outside at these times to observe the social dynamics.

Gill St. Bernard’s School in Gladstone uses the outdoors as a learning environment to ingrain sustainability and promote collaborative inquiry. The campus encompasses 128-acre Home Winds Farm, which includes a two-acre garden, tree nursery, stream and pond. “The natural features of our campus invite students in all three divisions—lower,  middle and upper—to probe the world around them,” says Noreen Syed, who teaches Science to middle-schoolers and heads up GSB’s STREAMS (sustainability, technology, research, engineering, agriculture, mathematics and service) program. “This space is a gift and a hallmark of our school. That is why we make active efforts to utilize the campus in a variety of ways.”

At the Academy of Our Lady of Peace in New Providence, outdoor time is folded into the formal curriculum as the students get older. “Academically, it’s great for them to explore the world around them,” says Jaclyn Church, who teaches middle school science and also serves as OLP’s Science Coordinator. “They are able to take the information we learn inside outside and make those connections. It’s great for application of the knowledge learned, even on a smaller scale. They can then think abstractly about the info on the larger scale.”

The school is building a greenhouse that will enable students to learn a variety of different concepts and see their work in hydroponics from inside continue. Church is also planning more activities that allow for outdoor play and real-world connections with the science curriculum, such as collecting water from outside and looking at it under a microscope.

“Getting the students outdoors is important for them in so many ways.”

Back to those visiting grandkids (aka invasive species). An adventure in the outdoors will build a life-long connection with nature, as well as deepen the connection between you and your young family members. Regardless of whether the “nurture with nature” approach takes root in your backyard or in a school setting, the goal is for children to gain knowledge, have fun and exercise. And, as a bonus, study after study has shown there’s a benefit to you, too: Gardening appears to be a key to longevity and good health.

Backyard BBQ a la mud

Back in the 1960s, a neighbor wrote a doll cookbook, Mudpies and Other Recipes, a compendium of plant, sand, water and dirt-based concoctions. It was all about entertaining a la mud. From literal SANDwiches to MUDloafs, I, aided by a taciturn, unresponsive sous-chef doll, would create sun-baked foraged feasts.  And I washed my hands after I cooked and ate, instead of before. The book still is available online, but you and your offspring could play Chopped kitchen with a variety of foraged natural materials and see what you come up with on your own. Bon Appetit!

Creating a Foodscape

If you have a backyard garden, a wonderful way to strengthen the connection with nature is to plant edibles with your young guests. Nothing is tastier or healthier than fresh-from-the-garden produce. Create a vegetable patch or plant herbs and vegetables among your flowers. Brie Arthur, author, and horticulturalists, jokingly swears by child labor. She welcomes students and young neighbors to help her plant. She has worked with learning-disabled children and says being engaged in planting and part of a workgroup fosters learning about the growth cycles of plants and a sense of belonging to a group and the world at large. She recommends pairing—or, as she calls it, “foodscaping”—vegetables and herbs with your ornamental plants. An added bonus is that your helpers will want to make a return visit to consume the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. A caveat is that you need to be organic and avoid chemical pesticides and fertilizers. To learn more, check out Brie’s website:


Welcome Mat

A grown-up project that resonates with all ages is the Butterfly Waystation Project, which is designed to create and protect Monarch habitats and can be incorporated into an existing garden. These beautiful butterflies, which help to pollinate our vegetables, are at risk. (Their population has been dwindling thanks to pesticides and human development.)

Native pollinators, such as milkweed, coneflower and Joe Pye weed, create habitats for larvae and energy sources for butterflies. Once you create a butterfly welcome mat, watch in the summer as the large striped caterpillars feast on the plants and morph into Monarchs. You can go a step further and contact the University of Kansas, which has a worldwide registry and can certify your Monarch-friendly garden. Nothing like helping to save a beautiful species and getting the acknowledgment. too!