Play is More Than Just a Pastime

On a busy morning between the recycling relay and the beekeeper demonstration, the parent of one of our campers stopped me in the lobby of the Shelby Farms Park visitor center. His child was one of our repeat customers. He had so much fun last summer at our pilot camp, Woodland Discovery Summer Challenge, that he couldn’t wait to sign up for Adventure Camp this year.

He told me a story about a recent family trip to the park to play. As they were driving through the entry gate near Patriot Lake, his son said, “When I’m here, I feel like I’m home.”

I’m usually prepared with an answer for everything (that’s my job as communications director for the nonprofit that runs the park), but the sentiment was so lovely and so poignant it took me a moment to remember to thank him for sharing that story and for sharing his son with us.

For young children, play is more than just a pastime. It is critical for brain development and cognitive abilities like language, memory and attention. Parents often underestimate the importance of play. Too often, our hectic daily lives crowd out opportunities to engage in play with our children. Play allows children to master their environment. That is why The Urban Child Institute, in partnership with the Neighborhood Christian Center, chose play as the fourth tenet of the Touch Talk Read Play message that is being shared with parents and other caregivers across Shelby County.

Play should be free and flexible, with opportunities for decision-making, adaptation and change. Outdoor play promotes creativity and imagination, and it allows children to dream up scenarios, solutions and stories with one another. In nature, children can invent their own adventures. They develop social skills, communication skills and relationships as they play through spaces that offer physical challenge and discovery.

At Shelby Farms Park, play embraces managed risk and challenge. Children need to test limits and practice their abilities, and the park offers varied activities at every level of difficulty. Playing outside helps develop fine motor skills like hand-eye coordination, balance and muscle movement. Elements that allow swinging, sliding and spinning — like in our play nests at Woodland Discovery Playground — encourage silliness, loss of control and sensational fun. Even the simplest or silliest forms of play are exercise for a child’s growing brain.

We’ve learned that experiences in nature can help children understand their place in the world and their connection to our shared ecosystem. It can also help them conceptualize their impact — positive and negative — on our natural environment. We design our educational programming — like our summer camp — to address real and relevant issues like health, nutrition, environmental education and inclusion.

There’s something about nature that is essential — it’s vast, complex, beautiful — and we’re all a part of it. Play in nature can provoke curiosity and discovery, instilling a sense of wonder. For older children, nature is the living laboratory where textbook lessons come to life.

With a summer camp that just won the National Health and Fitness Award and a Greenline Gardens program that’s teaching kids across the city about where their food comes from and why it matters, Matt Farr, education and outreach manager for Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, is designing innovative educational programming that delivers powerful memories to the children of our community. Memories, we hope, that will bring them home one day to show a new generation how important it is to play outside at Shelby Farms Park.

When you play outside with your children, you’re doing more than having fun. You’re helping them develop the cognitive, social, motor and imagination skills that will allow them to become creative, grounded, intelligent adults who understand their connection to one another and to their environment.

At Shelby Farms Park Conservancy, our dream is that the park feels like home to all the children in Shelby County. As a small nonprofit organization working hard to raise the money it takes to manage and operate Shelby Farms Park and the Shelby Farms Greenline, we know we have a responsibility to make sure the next generation of park supporters understands the importance of protecting and enhancing our natural resources. After all, we can’t expect children to care about meadows, trees and trails they’ve never met. Early childhood experiences in outdoor play are more than fun. They teach lessons and develop skills that last a lifetime.