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Mark Hoelterhoff
Mark Hoelterhoff Ph.D.

Parenting Confessional and the Importance of Green Play

Nature and children are natural playmates-they're both wild.

For my first blog entry I decided to set aside a Saturday afternoon to review the research on outdoor play and children. Nature and children are natural playmates--they're both wild and messy, unpredictable and beautiful. Kids just don't play out like they used to. Earlier this week Dame Fiona Reynolds, chief executive of the UK's National Trust, said, "Children are missing out on the sheer joy and physical and mental well-being of being able to play outside and experience nature in all its messiness." Taylor & Kuo (2009) found that activities done in green outdoor spaces reduced symptoms of ADHD in children more so than those done indoors. The act of playing outside was shown to benefit the children in this study. As a parent, I want my children to experience what we could call "green play." Except maybe when I am trying to write about it...

While writing, my oldest son is asking if he can play football outside with his friends. My thoughts immediately go to the local bully and several unsavory characters. I imagine my son navigating the footpath, dodging characters from the film "Mad Max". Reluctantly I say yes because I know he will badger me until I submit to his request and because I have read the research. I say yes, but a bit of my heart drops when he pulls on his high-tops and I hear the door close. Back to writing.

Kaplan's (1995) Attention Restoration Theory is a unique idea, which states children and adults need time in nature in order to concentrate on tasks. In other words, green play is just what we need in order to work. Play is necessary to complete the demands of life; work is dependent on green play.

There's a knock on the front door and some of the girls are asking if my middle daughter can come outside and walk to the park. She's eight and too young to go on her own but there's safety in numbers, right? Can 4 pre-teen girls defeat every impending doom our neighborhood has to offer? What survival skills have they learned from iCarly except that fun shoes make everything better? I say "yes" to Request No. 2 because I really need to get back to writing.

Green play relies on the accessibility of green spaces. Research shows that proximity of green space seems to improve self-discipline in 7-12 year old girls (Taylor & Kuo, 2006). Having green spaces outside the home can help girls lead more effective, self-disciplined lives. It appears there is something about the opportunity to engage with nature that promotes self-regulation.

I'm interrupted again when my youngest daughter has realized that both her brother and sister are playing outside without her. She starts to cry because she is not allowed to walk to the park on her own. I plead with my 5-year-old daughter to let me do my writing, but then the irony of the whole situation finally hits me. Despite having more degrees than a thermometer, I can be pretty dim.

I am trying to write a blog about playing outside while simultaneously being bothered that my children want to play outside. The real interruption is my attempt to hijack a Saturday afternoon to be a writer. My daughter reminds me it is time for some green play. As parents we know that kids should not be sat inside all day watching TV and playing video games, but sometimes it's an easy option.
Professionals and students should be critical of studies linking the outdoors with well-being because there are some methodological problems and countless confounding variables. However intuitively there is something real to me about this connection to nature.

In this blog I will attempt to highlight and investigate this connection. This area of psychology is fairly under-developed and in need of real critical discussion. However, if any of the conclusions from the research are valid, it's a necessary and important discussion to have.

That Saturday afternoon, I turned off the computer and went outside to play with my children. Let's count this time around as a case study.

About the Author
Mark Hoelterhoff

Mark Hoelterhoff Ph.D. is the Senior Lecturer of Applied Psychology at the University of Cumbria, and a chartered psychologist.