Kendal News and Blog

What are your favorite memories of childhood play?

Kendal at Oberlin - Thursday, April 14, 2011

If I think about most of those memories happened outdoors and included a lot of nature-based play. For instance:

  • digging holes “to China";
  • catching fireflies and frogs;
  • exploring little creeks and ponds;
  • building stick forts or tree houses;
  • daydreaming in your secret spot; or
  • Just “mucking around” in the woods.

Do your own children play that way?


Chances are they don’t. Childhood has changed. American kids now spend 27% of their time with electronic media. How much of their time do they spend outside? One percent, on average, and that includes highly structured, adult-led activities like soccer and baseball leagues.

“Unstructured” outdoor play free play amounts to only about 30 minutes per week for each of our children. That’s barely four minutes per day. Yet American two-year-olds average 2.6 hours of television per day.

Today, children’s access to green play spaces is often limited or dangerous

Kids’ free time dropped by 38% between 1979 and 1999. Parental fears have been magnified by “24/7” media coverage, whether it is sunburn, bee stings, or crime. Parents can not ignore the steady flow of worrisome news.

The big villain is plugged-in play, (i.e. cable television, digital music devices, computers, and video games). They have been the major factor in the disappearance of outdoor play.

As a result, childhood has changed dramatically and we don’t even have a hypothesis about what the long-term impacts will be!

Only recently have we begun to grasp the powerful and positive impacts nature and outdoor experiences have on children’s healthy growth and development.

Regular habits of active play during childhood are one of the best predictors of active adulthoods, a perfect prescription for combating the obesity epidemic. One in five four-year-olds in the U.S. is clinically obese. School children who use playgrounds with trees, fields, shrubs, and vegetated edges show more creative play, better concentration, and more inter-gender play than peers with equipment-focused playgrounds. Outdoor play in green settings reduces the symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.

According to the “hygiene hypothesis,” early exposure to plants, animals, and soil helps children’s immune systems to develop properly, making them less vulnerable to allergenic conditions like asthma and peanut allergies. Frequent, unstructured childhood play in natural settings has been found to be the most common influence on the development of life-long conservation values.

The virtual extinction of nature play is an unprecedented mutation of human childhood. We have unintentionally removed a life force that has been at the center of children’s physical, social, emotional, creative, and intellectual development throughout the history of humankind.

Parents are you confident that nature play has been replaced in your children’s lives by equally valuable and positive influences? If your answer is no, then start making those experiences for your little ones. Grow things as a family, make place for sand/dirt and water play in your yard, dig in the dirt or creatures, visit the metro parks, (not just the play ground) plan a time each day for a walk to discover one new thing in your neighborhood, and then take the time to learn about it – the really positive aspect of the tools of technology.)

Most of all build those memories and relationships with nature’s free equipment right outside your door.

The daffodils are blooming and the robins are singing, and just where are they at your house?

(Information and statistics from Green Hearts Inc.)