Wild Play in Nature 🐒

by Dr. Oakleigh Thorne, II

Jaxson on a tree root.


More and more studies of childhood development have stressed the importance of wild play in nature for very young children. What is wild play? It is allowing children to play freely in nature, enjoying it in their own individual way. This is unstructured play, allowing the child to experience whatever comes along.


A study by Cornell University has shown that plenty of wild nature play before the age of eleven encourages good environmental attitudes and behaviors later on in adulthood. This certainly is true in my case. I grew up surrounded by 60 acres of woods, fields, streams, and even a lake. I was allowed generous time out in nature, rain or shine. When I grew up, I majored in biology and then founded Thorne Nature Experience, where we have connected youth to nature for 60 years.


Some other activities that help tie oneself to nature are camping and hiking, as well as hunting and fishing. My father was a duck hunter and trout fisherman. I remember getting up very early in the morning, going outdoors with him, seeing beautiful sunrises and flocks of ducks flying everywhere, and feeling the fresh cool air in my face… memories I will never forget.


Wild play also helps develop one’s creativity and imagination. There is no substitute for hands-on exploration of nature to develop critical creative skills. There is tremendous variety in nature’s play-spaces for kids to discover for themselves. Dr. Albert Einstein said that “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Nature itself is full of imagination! Imagination thrives in young children during wild play in ways far beyond adult thinking.


I believe that wild play in nature allows young children to have many hands-on learning experiences. These build on each other and are often vividly remembered. Nature’s playground gives the child endless numbers of direct and real experiences. With the average kid spending over 50 hours a week watching a television or computer screen, let’s have more of a balance between “green time and screen time!”


Wild play provides the opportunity for children to find their own private places, as my friend David Sobel has pointed out in his book Children’s Special Places. Maybe it’s an old stump or a log to hide behind, or some bushes to use as a fort, which becomes a home away from home to the child.


These experiences help children to bond with the natural world, allowing them to feel comfortable and connected to the landscape. Instead of having a fear of nature, they soon have a deep love for it, eventually becoming committed as stewards of it. These wild places are in deep contrast to the typical playground that is often covered over with cement or asphalt with multi-colored plastic playground equipment, devoid of any natural quality. Nature’s playground is much more exciting and varied. Nature provides an adventure that implies “You don’t know what’s going to happen,” says Sobel.


I remember taking a group of students on a field trip one day and spotting a Prairie Falcon sitting in a tree about 200 yards from us. We were able to walk right under the tree without scaring the bird. It then flew down and caught a vole in the meadow right in front of us. What an adventure that was for all of us!


Think about the importance of wild play in your life. Boulder County has lots of wild open space. Get outside and visit these places and enjoy some wild play!


Dr. Thorne is founder and honorary president of Thorne Ecological Institute in Boulder. They have helped “connect kids to nature” for more than 55 years. For more information about Thorne Natural Science School classes for children, check www.thornenature.org or e-mail info@thornenature.org or call (303) 499-3647.


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