Let Kids Be Kids: Using Adventure and Nature to Bring Back Children’s Play

Blog written by guest-blogger: CAILEIGH FLANNIGAN

Caileigh is a play practitioner who uses forms of play as a way to promote children’s development and emotional healing. She is an outdoor play and loose parts researcher who is spreading the word about the importance of free play in natural environments.

Note: This article was originally published at https://www.fix.com/blog/


 It is a disappointing thing to see new playgrounds developed in city spaces sit there empty each day, or to walk in the park and hear no laughter. What is missing here is not the children per se, but materials and environments that create challenge, imagination, and creativity that make children want to play outdoors. The absence of such play environments is not only influencing the quantity and quality of children’s play, but also affecting children’s health and well-being. As adults, we need to support children in learning to enjoy what free play in the outdoors has to offer. We need to inspire imaginations, creative minds, and capable bodies. To do this, we can look toward two simple things: nature and adventure.

What’s Happening to Children’s Play?

Outdoor play is a necessary part of children’s development and is considered essential for children’s play and learning. Playing outdoors provides unique opportunities for learning that the indoor environment cannot offer. For example, children engage in higher levels of creativity, imagination, inventiveness, physical activity, language, and curiosity. Most importantly, they are given the opportunity to play freely. Despite this knowledge, outdoor play has been steadily decreasing for North American children.

When we look at why this disappearance of free play is happening, we realize that there are many factors that contribute to the lack of play. There are increases in structured play activities, an emergence of technology-based play objects, higher concerns related to safety and risk, adult control over children’s play activities, academically oriented schools, and an overall disregard for the value of play. More often than not, we see children engaged in a summer filled with structured sports activities or stuck inside with gaming systems and cell phones. We hear adults saying “don’t pick up the sticks!” “don’t go too far!” and “be careful!”. We know that schools are decreasing recess time or taking it away all together.

Unfortunately, it is all too common that today’s society has an overall disregard for the value of play and how important it is for children of all ages. It is ultimately these factors that are placing a barrier between children and their right to play freely in the outdoors.

The inability to cross over this barrier is affecting children in many areas of development. For example, there are increases in anxiety and depression at younger ages as well as difficulties with emotional regulation and self-control. Increases in physical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and asthma are becoming more apparent in young children and childhood disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more frequently diagnosed. Children who do not have access to outdoor play will miss out on the many benefits that free play in the natural environment has to offer toward their growth.

Illustration 1 code:

Why The Decrease in Free Play - Bring Back Children’s Play
Source: Fix.com Blog

The Importance of Free Play in the Outdoors

When children are engaged in free play in the outdoors, they are provided opportunities for freedom, choice, and fewer routines. In free play, there is no adult direction or control, so children are able to play how they want to play. When children are given such freedom to play, they are more likely to engage in higher levels of social interaction, cognitive skills such as decision-making and reasoning, empathy, and physical activity. In turn, they are less likely to become inattentive, anxious, or depressed and unhealthy.

Illustration 2 code:

The Benefits of Outdoor Free Play - Bring Back Children’s Play
Source: Fix.com Blog

The outdoor environment in particular has many benefits. A natural green space allows children to continuously explore ways to use materials, discover the varied environment, and create their own play experiences. The outdoor environment is not a man-made area and, therefore, is diverse and timeless. Children who play outdoors have heightened senses and emotions from the ever-changing topography and the rich stimuli that a natural space affords. This is how children learn – through experience: by seeing, feeling, touching, and hearing. The outdoor environment is a blank canvas on which children are able to place their own thoughts, wonders, and creations.

The Loose Parts Movement for Bringing Back Play

So what can be done now? After this discussion of the importance of free play in the outdoors you may be wondering how you can bring back play for children in your life. There are two things to support you in doing so: nature and adventure. What you are going to need to do is reintroduce adventure back into children’s outdoor play. To accomplish this, you can use loose parts.

Loose parts are play objects and materials that are open-ended, manipulative, moveable, and non-dictated. This means that children can use the materials in a variety of ways and there is no suggested way or “story” behind these materials. Loose parts allow children to act upon their environment the way that they want, rather than their imaginations and creativity being predetermined by the materials.

Examples of loose parts are items such as tires, logs, sticks, fabric, rope, and rocks. Loose parts can either be synthetic materials or materials that are commonly found in a natural outdoor environment. Loose parts spark children’s curiosity, which then leads to exploration and discovery. For example, if a child is provided with rope, tarp, and wooden pieces, she will become curious about what the materials are and how to use them. She will then begin to explore the materials in different ways through her imagination and creativity. This leads to discovering that the materials can do many things. This process of curiosity, exploration, and discovery is ultimately what leads to play and learning.

Where Can I Find Loose Parts?

You can find loose parts in many places, and they are often free!

  • Parks, forests, and natural spaces
  • Thrift stores
  • Yard sales
  • Hardware stores
  • Fabric stores
  • Local dairy suppliers
  • Grocery stores
  • Your own recycling bin

Here is a loose parts list that will inspire you to get out there and collect your own:

Illustration 3 code:

What Are Loose Parts - Bring Back Children’s Play
Source: Fix.com Blog

To support children in loving play again, it is important that we create environments and include materials that are fun, engaging, and challenging. If an environment or an object is too easy, children will view it as boring. To reintroduce adventure and free play to your children, consider using loose parts. When loose parts are paired with the outdoors, it will lift children’s spirits, make them love playing again, and ultimately make them happier and healthier.

Find your voice (for females)

Posted by Guest-blogger: Diana Proemm, CTRS

Over 20 years ago I left my home in Ohio to be a ski bum for a year in Big Sky, Montana. At that time, I thought I knew everything about life and was ready to take a walk on the trail of alpine life. Mountain culture is very different than city life. People make working to live a priority versus living to work. Quality of life is good and focuses on spending time in the outdoors, eating healthy and looking for the next trail, or river adventure.

I remember the day I left home so vividly because it was the first time I saw my dad cry and I was 23 years old. It truly broke my heart but I knew that he and I would be OK – the adventure had to ensue. It was in Big Sky that my love for the outdoors and mountain life took ahold and did not let go. With friends I explored all the local trails hoping to find something cool, like an old cabin, views, animals or wildflowers. The summers in Big Sky are like nowhere else. You can lose yourself in the mountains, but come out finding your place in life.

The Big Sky summer started a love affair with a man who led me to Alaska that winter. We literally drove the Alcan Highway to Girdwood in January. I left even though my inner tuition told me not to go. And by all means he would not wait for me to finish out the winter in Big Sky. Our relationship would be over and I did not want to lose him.

After our arrival in Girdwood just south of Anchorage, I acquired a job with two local commercial photographers who still are close to me. Being in a new location and the best trail finder ever, I went to work skiing, and exploring the majesty that is Alaska. Glaciers, mountains jutting out the ocean, and the biggest wild blueberries one can find. Upon summers end, my boyfriend had started drinking and changed. He became angry at times, call me horrid names and would call me fat even though I was 145lbs at 5’6”. I began to see my life differently and realized I had lost my confidence and my true self. Throughout that summer I let him take away my true and confident self. Reality shifted and I dropped out of a pink colored cloud I had been living in saying things were OK when in reality they were not.

Realizing that if I stayed in this relationship, I might not be safe. How had I let someone degrade me into thinking I wasn’t worthy? I realized then why so many women do not leave abusive boyfriends or husbands, as they make you feel like you cannot live without them and put fear in you if you leave. Although he never physically hit me, he was verbally abusive and there were some things thrown in my direction. I was thankful and proud of myself to get out when I did. When I was packing up and out, he called me many things that are not appropriate to say here. I took my best friend to obtain the last of my things from his place. He started throwing my spare tires at us and yelling profanities and we gave each other a look, grabbed whatever we could and left.

I was grateful to have to have the strength to leave and I vowed that day to never let any man treat me with disrespect. Over the years I have helped other ladies to do the same. I have seen women come out of abusive relationships they didn’t know they were in. The support and love I felt from my friend that day and beyond got me throughout that whole event. She had my back and I couldn’t be more grateful. Women have an uncanny knack to support each other when a fellow sister is in trouble. This is one of the many reasons why I started Bigger Picture RT, to empower women. My goal is for you to find your voice and confidence through outdoor adventure experiences with other ladie

Adventure Awaits…

Whatever your story, know that the Big Sky women’s tour will lead you on a journey to some of the first places I discovered when I arrived in 1995. The pristine beauty has not changed. The Alaska adventure will take you deep into the bush and into America’s largest national park. You will be flown into some of the rawest land in the nation and walk below 15,000ft peaks and miles of glaciers. Join me on a path to adventure with other amazing women next year.

The Bigger Picture experience is your trail to transformational healing. These adventure therapy trips for women will empower you to dive into the most rad terrain you’ll ever come across. You will sign up for a journey with other ladies to join a sisterhood of greatness. There will be no formal therapy sessions, and the trips are designed to invoke holistic therapeutic processes that may challenge your emotions. The best part is the group and professional support you’ll receive the whole time. Emotional safety is our number one and learning how to cope amongst others going through similar issues is a good way to move forward. You will leave with a sense of accomplishment.

Bigger Picture creates positive change in the lives of women struggling with anxiety and PTSD through weekend retreats and outdoor adventure. Check out our adventure trips for women here.


Contact Diana Proemm, CTRS