Can playing in the woods help kids develop lifelong skills?
Listen to an interview with Teece Nowell from River’s Edge Forest Play about the importance of outdoor play for children.
April 27, 2020: with Teece Nowell from River’s Edge Forest Play.
Janet Jefferson (00:14):
Welcome to Third Floor Views where we at Chesapeake Family Life, talk about health, education, and living with kids. I’m your host, Janet Jefferson. Like last week I’m on Facebook Live today. Today I’m talking to Teece Nowell and we are talking about the importance of children and outside play. Teece is a Maryland licensed clinical professional counselor and the founder and director of River’s Edge Forest Play, which is a nature immersion program designed to nurture children through nature play. We are going to discuss the importance of getting outside for kids and what they learn from outdoor play and how to achieve forest play when you don’t necessarily have a forest in your backyard. So big welcome to Teece and thank you for being here. We are going to dive right in. What is the importance of getting kids outside? Why do we care?
Teece Nowell (01:11):
Thanks for having me Jen. It’s just really an honor to be here. So play, which we think is sort of a gift is just not true. Play should be mandated and really is becoming mandated now by many pediatricians and the reason behind that is that play is how children experience the world. They don’t experience the world in a classroom sitting at a desk. Their natural way to explore the world is through play. It’s what they know. It’s what they do automatically. And so when we take that away from them, that opportunity to use their imaginations to be free, to do what they want, how they want, we take the ability for them to learn and to experience how to be in the world, away from them. So it’s absolutely the primary tool for learning for a child.
Janet Jefferson (02:06):
What is it that they’re learning outside?
Teece Nowell (02:09):
Oh my gosh, that is such a huge question. And the answer is there’s so many different answers. What I like to say primarily that they’re learning how to explore. So when a child plays, and let’s just say they play maybe in a mud kitchen, they’re playing house and you see it time and time and time again, and they’re over there and they’re baking and they’re cooking and they’re playing house. What really as a mental health practitioner, what we see them doing is that they’re trying to find their relationship to other people. So it comes down to social skills, which I must say as a mental health practitioner, many of the children in my private practice have very, very poor social skills. And the reason they have poor social skills is because they’re in this program or this program or this program and there are rules and there are regulations and you have to do this this way and this this way and kids get frustrated and then they take ownership of the toys and they don’t want to share because now it’s my turn. And so it’s just not natural. So child led, free play is absolutely vital to a child. We like to call it whole body experience.
Janet Jefferson (03:28):
So clearly this is really important and we need to make sure that our kids are getting outside. What can we do to help get them outside? Especially right now in this very bizarre circumstance that we are all living under.
Teece Nowell (03:45):
Well, unfortunately, in sort of bizarrely and sadly it’s not natural anymore. Kids are used to sitting in front of electronics. I mean, I won’t get on that bandwagon, but that’s how they’re entertained because in our society nowadays, usually both mom and dad are working and so they’re busy. And when you come home at night or on the weekends, there’s now chores to be done. So if you’re a mom and dad and you’re working all weekend, a kid’s at school or a daycare and you’re home on Saturday and Sunday, guess what? That’s when the laundry gets done. That’s when the house gets cleaned. That’s when the grocery shopping gets done. And so that child is just sort of pushed away, go play, go play. They don’t know how they sort of have to be taught. So the most important thing is to give the child the opportunity to get outside. I have a beautiful 10 acre forest that the children that come down through River’s Edge play in. But if you live in a community and you just have a small backyard, it’s still fine. But you have to go with them. You can’t just say go out there and play. They’re going to go, ah, I don’t know what to do. So you have to go out there and help them get into their imagination. We like to start with reading a story. So we might read a story about a fairy or a dragon or a squirrel. And then just say, now let’s go find a squirrel. Or where do you think the fairies live? So right now we are having families come out to the forest and just one family at a time in a certain area so that we’re doing our social distancing. And the thing that’s so fascinating for me to go out there. The first week we started with the suggestion of just to build a fairy house. Well, I’m not kidding we have fairy villages out there now because they’re adding onto them. So one day a family will build one area and then somebody else will put another little area in. And so it just works on itself. Somebody might not have known how to build a fairy house, but they saw this going on. So now they’re doing it. As a parent, we have to be our child’s guide. So we’re not teachers, we’re guides because the child is the teacher because we’re all about child-led. This has come from the child and you can’t say you didn’t build that fairy house right, you have to do it this way because that’s not the purpose. The purpose is for the child to try to experiment it and there’s no right or wrong and if they get it wrong, it doesn’t matter. They just learn, Oh, when I put that stick here and this stick here and this board here, then it fell down. Oh, what can we do next? We’re constantly asking them sort of inquiry based questions to get them thinking. We’re really building critical thinking skills each and every moment the children are outside playing. So they may be running on a tree that’s fallen down, it’s gigantic balance beam and they fall off and it’s like, oops. And so I never go, Oh my God, are you okay? Are you okay? No. It’s like, Oh, let’s get up and try again. And even if they’re crying, I’ll give them a hug and I’ll say you’re fine. Let’s try it again. I know you can do this. We’re building confidence, we’re building self esteem, resilience. But it’s really the critical thinking that they have to stop and think about what’s going to happen. And it’s the same thing with sharing. So if you’ve got a family outside, let’s say a sibling group of three and the mom or the dad or is out there and the big brother is picking on the sisters and now that we’re going to set the rules, don’t do that. No, no, no, we don’t. I don’t, we do not do that here. And so the sister will come over and go he’s hitting me. Well I think you need to talk to him about it. So as parents, we’ve always tended to want to fix it for our children. Well, our children don’t know how to get there themselves out of a difficult situation now because a teacher or a parent has is fixing it for them rather than having the children work the problem out themselves.
Janet Jefferson (07:50):
What I’m hearing is the importance of the adult. So in this case, everyone’s home now. So the role of the parent really being a facilitator and you have to get out there with your kids to help show them and help inspire them. So even though it’s child led, there needs to be an adult there to provide some scaffolding. Is that correct?
Teece Nowell (08:17):
Yes. In the beginning until a child learns how you play this way. Because most children, if you live in a community or something, you’re used to organized play. You’re used to going to soccer practice or going over to the pool and swimming, something that’s structured and organized and there’s a specific way to do it. So for a child to go just out in the backyard and play, often times they won’t know how to do it. So we suggest setting up what we call loose parts. Now a loose part is a natural part. It’s not going to be a bunch of Legos or something like that. We might have some bricks out or we love to have what we call tree rounds, but that might be difficult if you live in a subdivision or something. But even so, one year for my grandson’s birthday, I threatened, I didn’t, but I threatened to get him some two by fours and some cinder blocks and some rocks and a pile of dirt because that’s really what he needs. And then he can do so many different things with those materials and he’ll build them into something one day and the next day he’ll tear them down and he’ll build them into something else. But also the lifting of the heavy rocks and the pushing of the dirt is really good physically for the child. And it helps develop what we call his proprioceptive system senses. And so we need that for development. So again, children aren’t used to playing hard like we did as children. We’re ending up with balance problems and we have so many children in occupational therapy because they’re just not used to using their body. Children need to spin and roll and tumble in order for their systems to be integrated. But so in your back yard, yes, you might have one of those swing sets that you buy from home Depot or something like that and those are fine. But again, they’re pretty dead ended so they may play on them for 10 minutes and get bored. But clearly if you have a pile of loose parts out there or just a mud kitchen, which yes, it’s, it’s muddy but it’s supposed to be and you just go to the thrift shop and you buy some old pots and pans and you just set up a water table. A child will play at that for hours, but you might need to be out there for the first 15 minutes to sort of get them set up and get them started. But once you introduce it to them, they will learn to do it on their own and not need you out there. So you maybe could take your computer out to the deck while they’re playing and you can still be remotely working and just keeping an eye on them, but you won’t necessarily have to play with them the whole time.
Janet Jefferson (11:06):
Gotcha. That’s perfect. That was one of the questions that one of my coworkers had is like, Oh my kids love going to play in the backyard. But immediately they’re like, Oh let’s go on the swing. Will you push me? And then once the parent goes inside, then the kids are like, Oh well you’re not pushing me on the swing. I don’t want to be out here anymore. I’m all alone. So I think both doing guided play in the beginning and sort of getting them set up, but then even being close in nearby so your presence is still felt, even though you’re not physically involved in the play anymore, that can sort of maybe satiate that child challenge. So I think one question that I have and that often people think of nature play and they’re like, Oh, that’s for little kids, is forest play for all ages? And what’s that like for different ages?
Teece Nowell (12:00):
Absolutely. So depending on who comes to us, we’re small so we can be very flexible with ages, but we very much believe in play across the ages. So our groups can be aged three to 13 and everybody will say, well, how does a three year old play with a 13 year old? And I’m like, you’d be amazed. But they do. But not every minute of the five to eight hours that they’re here. But it’s really good for an older child to support a younger child. It teaches the older child so much responsibility and that they’re valued and the little kids look up to them, but also, the little kids teach the older children to be free and, and frivolous and get into their imaginations rather than being, stuck in, do I look okay? Am I behaving properly? And in all of that. But then, you know, the older kids will go play together. Younger kids will play together. So we actually run programs now from age three to 13. But that being said, we also run individual programs. So I’ll do like a woman’s retreat or we’ll do an early adult retreat because nature is incredibly healing and it’s so calming. It’s amazing how it changes your attitude the way you feel in literally a matter of minutes. So we’ll go out there and I’ll take a group of older people out there and we’ll just sit for 10 minutes. And it’s shocking the response that you’ll get, like how do you feel before how do you feel afterwards? And there has been scientific studies done on the answers as to why. And there really are physiological answers as to why nature, why you feel like that after being in nature. River’s Edge has been around for five years. We’re constantly growing and changing and trying to figure out how we can best service our community and what people in our community want. But doing a women’s retreat is something that I absolutely love to do because it’s just so healing to do that.
Janet Jefferson (14:17):
So right now being under lockdown and in this quarantine situation, what is the role of a forest play? How has that changed? What are some things that we need now, maybe more than ever. And how can we support our kids in this time?
Teece Nowell (14:32):
You have to just check with where you are. We are operating now as a park because you are allowed to go out and go for a walk. You still have to be under the limit of 10 so right now our families that were involved, what we call our Forest Play Program. So the kids aren’t coming out to be together as like a school. But we’ve invited each individual family so the family can come as a unit. And as I say, we have 10 acres. So we have different camps set up in the woods and so they’ll come now and play in a certain area. We’ve been able to continue to do that and still maintain the social distancing and everything. So if you can go, I think Quiet Waters Park is still open and some of the parks are still open, so I highly recommend a couple times a week at minimum that you just get them outside so they can run and climb a tree or just be out in the woods. The leaves are coming out on the trees now and it’s such a beautiful time of the year. Every morning I go from my nature walk and I find something new. Yesterday morning the Morel mushrooms are up and so we were collecting morels yesterday and this morning and it’s magical and it just feels so wonderful because it calms you down. I’ve been telling my parents and the parents of my private practice clients, I’m nervous too. This whole thing is wigging me out too. It’s hard. You have to figure out a way to calm yourself down. Because as a parent, if you’re not calm, your child’s not going to be calm. And these kids, it’s been a month and they’re tired of being stuck inside. Kids need to move. That’s what their body is telling them to do. Move, move, move. So even if just in your backyard, at least a couple times a day, get them outside and and do a gymnastic show or do a dance party outside because it’s important that they move and they get their muscles going, and that’s going to help their brains because they’re going to get cranky and they’re going to get nasty, and then you’re going to get cranky. It just becomes horrible. So whatever green space you can find, even if you live in a subdivision and you’ve got sidewalks, go for a walk on the sidewalk, but get outside in nature and just see all the little tiny things, all the little beautiful flowers that are blooming. The natural ones. I mean, yes, gardens are beautiful too, but there’s all sorts of little tiny violets and all sorts of other little natural flowers that are coming up in the grass that you can see and you can play all sorts of games. Like who can find a yellow flower, who can find a blue flower, a white flower, the different shapes, the different sizes. All the leaves of the trees are different shapes and the bark is different. You can do the I Spy thing. I spied a tree that has rough bark. The beech tree is one of my favorite trees and it’s smooth like an elephant’s leg. And so we teach my grandson where this one has smooth bark and this one has rough bark when he was two. Just talking to them and getting them to recognize and see nature and to pick it out rather than having it be sort of like a picture out there that they don’t take in.
Janet Jefferson (17:51):
Right. That’s really helpful advice too, because you know, so many of our viewers and listeners, they might not have a big backyard or maybe aren’t close to a park. So just knowing that you can just go outside and find space along the sidewalk and places like that. And so it’s accessible in a lot of different levels with that. A lot of kids, especially at certain ages, are collectors and they love to pick up little things, whether it be their favorite rock or a perfect stick or whatever it is along the way. Do you have any tips on bringing the outside inside and maybe things that parents and kids can do to build off of their time outside? Maybe if it’s especially rainy or in the evening or something that they can work on in their house?
Teece Nowell (18:39):
Right. The most perfect thing to do is to take an egg crate. So in an egg crate you’ve got 12 different little compartments. So give each child an egg crate to take outside and they can put all their little special things in the egg crate. Of course, unless it’s a great big rock or something like that. That way you’re, you’re teaching them sorting. There’s so much value to doing that, but then it’s theirs. Now I do have some people that are like, Ooh, but it’s got a bug on it, so you just have to get over that. Bugs are not going to hurt you. And you know what, even if they get in your house, they’re really, they’re going to die is what’s going to happen. But anyway, so don’t worry about the bugs or that it’s got dirt on it or anything like that. Dirt is really good for you actually. So that’s a great thing. And then you can just, even on the kitchen table or the floor in the kitchen, they can then empty out or take out the things out of their egg crate and look at them and maybe make a picture, you know, give them a piece of computer paper and take all their little pieces that they’ve gathered and make me a picture, make a design and then you can put it back in the egg crate again. You can swap back and forth from sister to brothers, sisters or whatever. So that’s a really, really easy, really great thing to do.
Janet Jefferson (19:53):
Great. Yeah, that’s a really helpful tip. A question that I have, especially right now because we are experiencing a lot more screen time, especially as schools have gone virtual, can forest play maybe balance out some of that screen time or how do these pieces fit together? I do worry about my child. She’s in preschool and I think it is really important that she’s able to see other three-year-olds and so she gets to see her classmates and smile and wave and chat. But then I also think about, Oh my God, I’m putting my three year old in front of the computer. This is crazy. So is there something that we can do to sort of at least make ourselves as parents feel better that this forest play is going to be healing in that way?
Teece Nowell (20:42):
So computers aren’t horrible. I mean I know that they’re here and they’re going to be here. It’s a matter of limiting it. And so what you have to understand is the development of the brain and the computer, they don’t sync. It’s not healthy. So you really have to limit the amount of screen time that your child has. I don’t have a formula, so like an hour on the computer, two hours outside. If I did, I can tell you it would probably be 10 fold outside time to the computer, but I would just limit screen time. What we really worry about is their eyes and the computer and children are wearing glasses more at a young age because they’re not learning that depth perception. Because when we’re outside and the shadows that come through the trees is how we develop a lot of our depth perception. So the more that we get the children outside walking on uneven ground or through the leaves or down a hill or up a hill is helping with their depth perception. So there’s been a correlation between screen time and children wearing glasses because it’s right here and they’re not looking way out here far enough. So again, if you can get a child outside for an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon and then a couple hours each day longer on the weekend, that’s a really good first start. We’re outside in all weather, it’s pouring rain and we’ve got children here and we’re playing and they don’t care. As long as they have the right clothing on and the right boots on, they’re fine. So don’t be afraid like, Oh, it’s too cold or it’s too wet. It’s a different kind of play. And again, it’s building resilience and it’s building stamina and the idea that I can do this and it’s not a big deal. So then when they have a math problem in third grade and it’s hard, they know they can push through. That’s what we’re teaching them at such a young age is that yeah, it’s hard, but keep going. We’re going to get to the other side. So just absolutely as much time outside. But you have to make it a priority because if you don’t put it in the schedule and you don’t make it a priority because it’s extra, then you’re not going to do it. So you have to, it has to be as important as that school lesson. I personally think it’s more important, but I understand so, but you have to realize it’s so developmental throughout the, throughout your age to be outside, it has to be a priority.
Janet Jefferson (23:18):
Any quick sort of do’s and don’ts for parents on tips on how to facilitate this outside play? So one of the things that you had talked about earlier was parents often want to fix things and they jump in and they’re like, Oh, don’t walk that way. You might fall down or be careful, that is dangerous. So what is the classic parents pitfalls?
Teece Nowell (23:41):
Yep, just exactly like that. Be careful, be careful. I hate that word. I hate that word because I understand kids are going to fall and yes, some break their legs and some end up having injuries and those are horrible things and I totally get that. But it doesn’t happen very often. The risk of it happening is so much smaller than the benefit that they get. Don’t say please be careful. Because now you’ve got your kid in their head and they’re listening and the minute you say that they stop and they respond and that’s when they’re going to fall. So set the rules ahead of time. If you’ve got a climbing tree out in the backyard, say okay, you can go as high as whatever branch it is and set the rules or what your expectations are with them. Just know that it’s the child’s time. It’s not your time to be the parent. Let the child take the lead. Let the child bring you down to their level and if they just know they’re going to get dirty, they’re going to get muddy, they’re going to smell. And that’s okay. That’s part of childhood, right?
Janet Jefferson (24:55):
Absolutely. One final question I do want just to learn a little bit more about River’s Edge and for our listeners and viewers out there, other programs like Free Forest School. There are structured, or I might even say semi-structured opportunities out there. This will be of course post quarantine, but what are some of the differences between those programs and maybe some of the benefits and challenges?
Teece Nowell (25:23):
So first and foremost, the most important thing is to get your child outside in nature and let them run around and play unstructured, meaning not necessarily on the playground where they’re swinging. Yes, there are many, many different programs. Forest Kindergarten, nature preschools are all the rage. Tinker Garden, Free Forest School. They’re all wonderful because it’s all getting children outside. I’m a mental health practitioner. We have an occupational therapist and a special educator on staff at River’s Edge. So we’re all highly, highly trained in child development. And that’s what sort of stands us apart. And we start with play. We are not here to educate your child in mathematics or reading or anything like that. It comes naturally, but we are more foundational in what we do. That critical thinking, social skills, confidence, courage, those are the building blocks for executive function and being able to then go to school and sit quietly and pay attention. So you just have to try to understand what is your goal in getting your child outside. Every child needs nature and every child needs to connect to nature. And we as a human society in a race need children to connect. So they can conserve it and they can protect it. And we’re not going to all be living on concrete because it’s easier to take care of because then we really will be in a problem. So the foundation is the most important thing is just to get your child outside free playing, not just playing sports. That doesn’t count. It’s free play where they’re guiding the play.
Janet Jefferson (27:10):
Gotcha. Yeah. Really, really important. Well, I just want to say a big thank you. Thank you so much Teece for being here with us today to address all of our questions about playing outside both kids and adults and how important it is. I also want to say thank you to our viewers and listeners today. Make sure that you do visit Chesapeakefamily.com for all a local updates about home, health, and living for today’s Maryland parents. On Chesapeakefamily.com there are lots of articles about hikes and places to take your kids right now during the quarantine on there, a bunch of updates so you can go check that out and to give you some ideas. There’s some recent updates specifically about Beverly Triton, Quiet Waters, Calvert Cliffs, and there’s going to be one on South River Farm today. So check it out and get outside, I know Teece also has some great resources on her website, so go to River’s Edge and check that out as well. We’d love to hear your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you enjoyed what you heard today, check out more at thirdfloorviews.com. I’m Janet Jefferson. This is Third Floor Views. Thank you for listening.