Commentary/Opinion: Promoting nature play for pandemic recovery

While we are just beginning to learn all the ways the pandemic has affected the mental health of children, there is a growing consensus among child development and health experts that the best way to promote recovery is simple: Play. Children rely on play to make sense of their world and to develop coping strategies. For children, play is the language of healing. When children are invited to take their play into nature, the positive impact of play is multiplied because the natural world is well-documented for counteracting the ill-effects of stress and trauma. When kids play outdoors, research has found that children are better able to regulate their emotions and to build positive relationships with their peers. Kids that play in nature do better academically, as they are healthier, happier and more prepared to learn. Now more than ever, all children must have access to high-quality nature play experiences, which are the building blocks of healthy child development.

Sadly, children are spending less time outside playing than in any previous generation. The pandemic has exacerbated the trend toward indoor, sedentary childhoods in front of screens. As a community committed to our children, we need to prioritize giving children nature play experiences that are nearby and engaging. We also need to work to make access to quality green spaces more equitable throughout our community.

Access to nature is a known social determinant of health, not unlike access to high-quality medical care, education and stable housing, but rarely is access to nature a focus of equity discussions. Local nonprofit Wildrock, seeks to promote a conversation in our community on how we can prioritize nature access to foster children’s health and well-being through nature play.

Wildrock has worked to increase access to nature play by partnering with schools and nonprofits to provide outdoor play experiences in schoolyards, neighborhoods and in area parks. For many children who visit for field trips, Wildrock’s Nature Play and Discovery Center in the Blue Ridge foothills offers a first authentic nature-immersive experience. Children deserve these nature-rich experiences on a regular basis, deepening their connection to nature throughout their childhoods.

Nature play has an equigenic effect, meaning that when given equal access to nature play opportunities, children in under-resourced neighborhoods benefit more than children living near high-quality green space. By providing our most vulnerable communities with richer nature play spaces in their neighborhoods, we can actually level the playing field and address multiple issues of inequity in our community from physical health and social-emotional wellness to school-readiness. The time for change is now.  As a community, we need to prioritize children and give them the joy and the benefits of nature play.

Carolyn Schuyler, LCSW, is founder and executive director of Wildrock, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting nature play for health and happiness. Wildrock works collaboratively with local nonprofits and public schools to create play zones in city schoolyards and underused urban greenspaces.

A former kindergarten teacher, Sarah Harris joined the Wildrock team in 2017 as the Early Childhood Program Director. She launched the Wildrock Nature Friends Preschool program in 2018, bringing nature play to preschoolers in Charlottesville City Schools. She now serves as the communications director for Wildrock and volunteers as an advocate for safe and healthy schools for all students. Sarah lives in Crozet with her family.

Children at a Pop Up Play hosted by Wildrock.