Nature Play and Health: Tips for Parents from a Science Educator

Summer Blog Series
PLAY for Healthier Communities #1

“Nature Play and Health: Tips for Parents from a Science Educator”

Last month in celebration of Park and Recreation Month, I had the honor of playing a virtual game of Kohl’s Healthy at Home Nature BINGO with my friend Pascale at and her 5-year-old daughter, Kamila. We discussed how healthy habits, like playing more outside, are also a great way to feel connected to each other and our amazing planet. In this article, I am excited to dive deeper into these linkages through a conversation I recently had with Samantha Wynns, a Science Educator at Cabrillo National Monument and If/Then Ambassador.

Daniel: Why is being a good steward of the environment important for our physical and mental health?

Sam: A healthy environment also supports our mental health. There is an abundance of scientific research demonstrating that getting outside lowers stress hormones, increases healthy hormones (like oxytocin), and decreases anxiety and depression. If we are to reap the mental health benefits of playful learning in nature, we need natural spaces to immerse ourselves in. This means we must first preserve and protect the environment around us.

What happens to one species happens to all and this includes humans! Here’s an example; honeybees have been experiencing something called Colony Collapse Disorder, which means their colonies have been failing and the bees have been dying off at a massive rate. Why does this matter? Because pollinators give us much of our food! At least 35% (a conservative estimate) of our crops require pollinators to produce nutritious foods like almonds, apples, berries, and tomatoes. Protecting pollinators by preserving native habitat and being mindful of pesticide use enhances food security for humans.

Daniel: As an educator at Cabrillo, how have you seen playful experiences in nature encourage children to care about themselves, each other, and the planet?

Sam: When we provide playful experiences in nature, we invite children to connect with the world around them. Without these opportunities, we see disconnections that result in bullying – a serious challenge faced by many youth, especially those in the LGBTQ community. It’s easy to bully an image on a screen or a social media handle that doesn’t seem connected to a real human on the other end. When you get children out into the beauty of nature and give them room to be curious and explore linkages on their own, it fosters a sense of connection on all levels.

I like to utilize a simple activity called, I notice, I wonder, it reminds me of… Ask your child to pause and make an observation, then notice, wonder and draw connections. For example, they might notice a plant’s strong scent, wonder why it has that scent and make linkages. Perhaps it reminds them of something in their own community garden or a flower at their grandparents’ house.

Building those connections helps children see how everything (and everyone) has a place and how everything is interrelated. These mindful experiences spark the thought that actions matter and that children themselves are an important part of caring for the cool place they’re exploring.

Daniel: What tips do you have for parents to help children feel connected to nature?

Sam: Oftentimes, all you must do is provide an opportunity for kids, and they will do the rest. Take them to outdoor spaces, when possible, and give them the freedom to notice, wonder and explore. Point out interesting things that you’re observing and ask them to expand on that. Outdoor spaces do not have to be distant mountain peaks, they can be your yard, neighborhood park, community garden, or local waterway.

There are many ways to feel connected to nature even when you don’t have access to it, like looking out the window and observing birds in a tree, finding a trail of ants or spiders indoors, or even growing your own windowsill plants. A couple of tools to help you slow down, be mindful and draw connections include nature journaling and apps like iNaturalist to identify plants and insects.

Daniel: Who can help families connect with nature?

Sam: Look for city, county, state, and national parks in your area; those parks will have websites that have information about special events or programs like hikes, outdoor field trips, bioblitzes (community science projects that are all about nature exploration), summer camps (some of them are free), and even volunteer opportunities! There are also many non-profits that can help you get connected. For example, we have one here in San Diego called Outdoor Outreach which connects underrepresented youth to nature through hikes and community events. I recommend Googling “youth nature non-profits + the name of your city” to find resources. Many cities also have a local foundation with a newsletter that you can join that will provide this information. I always recommend signing up for your local school district’s newsletter too!

Another method for finding folks to help facilitate nature connections is by finding a champion in your community. Maybe you know someone who volunteers in your community garden or a friend who hikes. Ask them where to start. People love to share their passion and would be more than happy to help.

And don’t forget! If you’re in the San Diego area, please get involved with me and my nature-loving team at Cabrillo National Monument! You can find information about our various projects on our website.

Daniel: Last question, is there anything else you would like to share with folks who read this article?

Sam: I just want to encourage folks with the statement: There is a place for you in nature. Depending on your lived experience, nature can often be interpreted as distant and, therefore, unattainable. But as I like to say, nature is really all around you – you just have to pause and observe. So even if you’ve never really thought of yourself as a “nature-person” before, I hope you give it a try. Just take the leap and get outside with your community, your family, or your friends – your body and mind will thank you for it!

Thank you to Sam for sharing your experience and tips! Ready for even more simple ideas to encourage playful fun in nature? Sign up for the Healthier Generation e-news.

About the Author: Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships of the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, where he manages technical assistance services and resources for out-of-school time sites as they work to achieve national standards for healthy eating and physical activity. Daniel oversees community-based and out-of-school partnerships at the Alliance.

About the Summer PLAY Blog Series: This summer we are featuring some great PLAY resources with our 2021 Summer PLAY Blog Series, starring two invited play partners as our content experts.  PLAY is important no matter what season it is…so NO SUMMER LEARNING LOSS here!  In July, Noah Lenstra, Director of Let’s Move in Libraries, will highlight public library play initiatives for several key demographics.  In August, Daniel Hatcher, Director of Community Partnerships for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, will blog on “PLAY for Healthier Communities.”