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Outside play helps children learn and grow

Christina Hoyt
Nebraska Statewide Arboretum

Play is an essential activity of children. Research shows that nature play provides opportunities for creativity, expression, social interaction and imagination and improves cognitive functioning, critical thinking and self-esteem. However, with television, computers, video games, organized activities and continuous fears of “stranger danger,” kids spend most of their time indoors. Recent studies have linked an increase in childhood obesity, Attention Deficit Disorder symptoms and childhood depression to this phenomenon and shown that time in nature can actually relieve some of these symptoms.

Creating opportunities for play in nature, both at our homes and in public settings, is important to the health of children. Natural play spaces are outdoor areas that incorporate natural elements for explorative play such as hills to run down, water to manipulate, loose parts to move, places to dig and, of course, plants.

Plants are the backbone of our environments, providing respite and habitat for animals. They give a sense of place, stimulate our senses and mark the passing of seasons.

“Plants are intrinsically interesting to children,” writes Robin Moore, natural playground designer and researcher at North Carolina State. “Vegetation stimulates exploration and discovery, fantasy and imagination, and provides an ideal setting for dramatic play, hide-and-seek games, and orienteering activities. Specimen plants provide important orienteering elements. Vegetation is the ultimate interactive playing and learning environment – and is virtually cost-free once established.”

Incorporating plants into children’s spaces is a simple way to enhance a child’s play environment.

Here are five plants to stimulate a child’s sense of wonder:

False Blue Indigo – Known also as “rattle-pod,” its bundle of black seed pods, each filled with hundreds of little seeds, create an opportunity for children to create music. When the seed heads are shook it sounds like a rattle or maraca.

Milkweed – It is beloved by children for its white milky sap and the array of caterpillars and butterflies it attracts. Milkweeds are essential to every children’s garden. Use butterfly milkweed in dry sites and swamp milkweed in moist sites.

Succulents – Their thick, waxy leaves and imaginative shapes are attractive to children. From hardy sedums that can occasionally overwinter in pots to “exotic” succulents that can be taken inside for the winter these are sure to delight.

Prickly Poppy – This is not a plant to be handled lightly because of its barbs. However, the bright orange sap or “prickly poppy paint” it excretes when cut open is sure to get oohs and aahs. Used by Native Americans in ceremonial dress, it is safe to paint on the skin.

Grasses – Native grasses, especially tall ones, give feelings of “enclosure,” seeds to gather and fibers to create structures and art from.

Robin Moore, internationally recognized natural playground designer and researcher, presents “Natural Play Spaces Their Value for Children and Families” in free public lecture periodically. To learn more visit http://healthyfamiliesplayoutside.org


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