Let The Children Play


Why Our Kids Need to Engage with Nature


I grew up on a farm along the river in the Shenandoah Valley, where I spent countless hours in nature walking the vast fields, often making mud pies and daydreaming. One of my fondest memories is of a foal’s birth across the fence in our front yard. I recall the gentle hustle to reunite the damp, shaky foal with her mother. We didn’t want to interrupt this precious moment, yet we wanted to ensure that baby and mother peacefully found their way back together. To this day, being in nature always calms me, answers any problem I may be experiencing, and ensures I’m grounded in this busy life many of us tend to lead in Northern Virginia. I do my best to give my children these same experiences in nature, a way to ignite their imaginations and calm their nerves. Nature reminds us to share with our children the freedom to explore on their terms.

As my father and I set out to photograph for an article on kids’ yoga, our plan shifted when we allowed Audrey, nine, and Blaine, seven, to show us how to spend a day in the park. We headed to the Koi fish pond, were captivated by a magnificent tree that they immediately began to climb. In the background, we captured pictures of their busy discussions about how best to play house while up in that tree. Audrey began to divvy up the branches, defining their own personal rooms. Later, we ventured to the waterfalls. Blaine immediately climbed all of the rocks and traversed the surrounding trails, and I could barely keep my eyes on him. We finally made it to the see the Koi and turtles, and the kids freely ran around the beautiful area in pure awe of their surroundings. There was no fighting or bickering among the two siblings; instead, their energy was focused on the draw of the surrounding natural elements.

In the book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv writes:

“Unlike television, nature does not steal time, it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child. Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses. Some kids don’t want to be organized all the time. They want to let their imaginations run; they want to see where a stream of water takes them.”

I continue to return to these words when I’m thinking of how to ensure my own children experience the wonder of nature.


Use free time with kids to explore and talk; many times children are chattier while engaged in the rhythmic act of walking, talking, and taking in the beauty of their surroundings. Walking is easy to squeeze into existing routines: walk to school, to the store, after dinner, or during family gatherings. Here are a few other ways to help kids explore and nourish a sense of adventure, both indoors and out:

Nature Art – Use fallen branches, flowers, leaves, rocks, and berries to create a pattern with natural elements.

Backyard Exploration – Allow kids to truly explore outdoor spaces without hovering. This is important for their flourishing imaginations. Keep an eye on them from afar while letting them experience all the nooks and crannies of your yard. I’ve found that my son will play longer outside if I leave him alone to get dirty and roam freely.

Indoor Exploration – Use electronics to your advantage by pumping up the music and having a wild dance party, or encourage slow-dancing using balloons and more intentional movements. We can also promote indoor adventures by turning off electronics. Suggest turning a room into a fort using items from around the house. At a recent sleepover, my kids transformed the basement into two separate spaces, one for girls and one for boys. The boys were more traditional with their fort, whereas the girls turned the entrance to the bedroom into a hotel lobby with a check-in.

We all need space to create and solve problems. The impossible is possible when we give our children this freedom to explore and create, especially if some of that freedom can occur in nature. If we watch and listen, our children are our greatest teachers.