When I was growing up, entertaining myself meant having my hands in some dirt, picking vegetables from our garden, looking out for bugs, exploring the woods behind our house, making up tall tales all the while. It meant climbing trees and picking flowers and sliding down hills and getting making mud pies. It meant making friends with a raccoon, a duck, a turtle, and countless frogs. It meant catching lightning bugs and searching for lady bugs. There was no cable television or Netflix, no Internet of Information or World Wide Web to get caught up in.
I think about all the lessons I learned from nature. I learned all the simple things — that some plants make you itch, that ticks can hide behind your ears, that ants really can get into your pants if you're not careful. I learned about my senses - to not just see, but to touch and to smell and to taste, though I also learned that tasting everything wasn't always the best thing. I learned that tree limbs are stronger than you think, that I can't catch a bird, that flowers only bloom for a short while, and that vegetables are best right off of the plant. But I also learned the bigger things. I learned about independence and self-reliance, about guidance and exploration and discovery. I learned how to forge my own path and how to find my way back home. I learned about diversity, about how whether something is a weed or a tree or a bird or a bug or a dog or a girl, we're all here, together, and that's what's important. I learned to fall down and to get back up, to calculate risks and to take chances. I learned to challenge my mind but know my limits.
There are so many reasons nature play is important, both for children and for adults. Not only does nature play help us develop an awareness for and appreciation of the environment, but it improves our mental, physical and spiritual health by giving us opportunities to learn, meditate, exercise and de-stress. For children, nature play helps improve their balance, eyesight, their sense of space. It supports creativity, resourcefulness, problem solving and self-confidence and improves concentration, curiosity and academic performance.
Fortunately, the Austin area provides plenty of spaces for nature play — both for children and adults. Here are a couple of our favorite spaces that both children and adults can enjoy.
Need more suggestions? The Children in Nature Collaborative of Austin, online at naturerocksaustin.org, is a great resource to turn to for resources, events and recommendations.