Child Creativity Linked With Outdoor Free Time

Are children today getting enough contact with the natural world? Do they still dig in the dirt, build forts, and observe the animals frolic in the trees? Do you remember the hours of fun you had in the woods with just a stick and your imagination? With all of our technology and entertainment it is easy for children to miss out on the natural outdoor free play that studies show is critical for developing creativity

Parents sometimes let their kids outside. But is it enough to just be outside? Isn’t it sometimes…well…a little…plastic? It’s better than nothing, but this playground stands in sharp contrast to what I am about to share with you.

Early this fall, at the University of Minnesota Arboretum, we discovered “under the oak,” a natural place for children. If you get a chance, visit it. It’s wonderful. We need more places like this.

When you approach the area you’ll see this sign reminding us about how important it is for children to have free time to develop in nature:


The massive oak tree beyond the sign looks like this. 

Here is a close up of the “Toad Abode” 

Under the tree, kids can build and play in natural tunnels… 

And forts… Watch Out! Ya might get poked with a stick! Don’t tell the safety nazis. 

Someone built this cool fort… Check out the canvas roof… 

I don’t think that stick was meant to be a weapon… but… well… boys will be boys.

This is the view from the inside.

You can build your own canvas tent… 

Or set up shop and pretend you’re a little entrepreneur… 

Or set the table. But my son wanted to make little paths out of the plates. 

Until he found something more interesting. 

We had hours of fun under that old oak tree… 

In the background of this photo you can see some cornstalks. That’s a garden with sunflowers and vegetables and other plants, where the kids are encouraged to touch everything. 

Next to the garden is a green house with a variety of things we can’t grow in Minnesota like cacti and citrus fruit. Again, the kids are encouraged to touch everything, even the cacti – ouch! 

I wish we had a playground like this in every neighborhood. Maybe… someday. Until then, I’m grateful we have this one. 

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This post is part of the Season of Gratitude at the Balanced Life Center.

33 thoughts on “Child Creativity Linked With Outdoor Free Time”

  1. I spent hours rambling through the woods when I was a kid. When my own children were young, I would make them go outside to play. They had the yard, with a 100+ year old sycamore to climb and swing in, mounds of dirt, snow, and a small woods with all sorts of things for them to find.

    That’s a terrific area at the arboretum.

    Yes, I do think most children spend too much time indoors or in sanitized play, and it will affect their creativity and self-reliance as they become adults.

  2. Steve Olson is one of the few bloggers around who can hit the “Industrial Military Complex” over the head with a rail of Readen Metal.

    Piercing and Honest–How much of Rand’s Anthem is actually true……

    Also you guys should see the film “The Equilibrium” – if that don’t scare ya nothing will.

  3. Steve! Yes. My heart breaks that we have created the Educational Industrial Complex, and one of the reasons my son will never set food inside a public school. The photos remind me of just about every Waldorf school in the country. They’ve had play and nature integrated and “instituted” for almost a century.

  4. Wow. This place reminds me of where I used to play as a kid…the woods.

    This is a really cool idea, and right in my “backyard” (another place I used to play) so to speak. Thanks for bringing it to our attention.

    I must say, though, it’s a weird age to live in where we have to “create” a “natural” experience to compete with those giant injection-molded SterileDome playgrounds.

  5. John,
    I agree, it is a little weird to “create” a natural experience. In the suburb I live in, I have a half acre woods on my property where all neighborhood kids are welcome to build forts and play, and it is adjacent to a huge wetland and 10 unbuilt acres of woods they can also play in. That’s one thing I love about old-school suburbs, unlike the city and unlike new “planned” suburbs, they had space. The new ones are all crammed together without any nature.

    I’m lucky, I’m in a neighborhood that was built before the central planners (Met Council) went nuts.

    But more people than ever don’t live in nice suburbs like I live in. They live in “planned” communities with buildings, condos, apartments, and townhomes and every one of those “planned” communities has a playground with plastic stuff, but I have never seen one with a woods for kids to play in. Maybe they should add this to their “plan”.

  6. Steve. What a great post and what a great playground! We’re fortunate that we live in a great area with lots of opportunities to get outdoors. My daughter is often the one who says, “Come on Dada, let’s go for a hike!” I love that! But building some structures like these in our backyard or at Ella’s preschool would be awesome.

  7. Awesome, simply awesome. I spent hours in the grove of my various childhood homes making “projects” for myself, building walls, forts, and other things, and generally checking out nature and loving the hell out of it. I’d play so hard I’d forget to come in to eat. Nothing like the random, unplanned features of nature to inspire the little gears to grind.

  8. Great post Steve!
    My favourite quote: “And forts… Watch Out! Ya might get poked with a stick! Don’t tell the safety nazis”. Here in Australia we have one of the highest rates of obesity (childhood and adult) in the Western world. If more kids got away from their computer games and got outside we might stand a chance of reduced these rates. Great photos too!

  9. Great post, Steve.

    That’s what I hate about the new LEGO kits; they are so specialized that it’s hard to use your imagination. When I was young, we had a bunch of random blocks and built what we could think of.

    Same thing with playgrounds; you need LESS structure and more organic variations..

  10. This is a wonderful place and does remind me of the good old days. We spent much time on our horses, playing in the woods, using our imaginations to create many fun games and memories. Not only is this a nature discovery area, it may also help jump start ones imagination, thinking of animals and how they live and just what’s different in the woods compared to our backyards.

  11. Hi, Steve. Would you (and all of you other lovely people reading this) consider adding this (with your photos) to the KaBOOM! Playspace Finder? It’s a free directory of playspaces (playgrounds, skateparks, sports fields, etc.). We aren’t trying to sell anything. KaBOOM! is a national nonprofit that helps communities build playgrounds. We’re putting this directory together to try to show where playspaces are (or aren’t) and showcase what’s good and bad about them. Anyone can add a playspace, including ratings, photos and comments.

  12. Great playground!

    I love sending my kids into the back yard to play. I always say it’s a much better “babysitter” than the television ever was, and the kids have a lot more fun playing outside than they ever do on the computer. And minor injuries need to be a part of life.

    While much of the playground nearest my house is plastic, I do love the area it’s in. The park is huge and has lots of trees and even just plain old dirt. People go riding by on horses sometimes. I consider it to be a better than average park because it has access to both the equipment and more natural areas, and I never know which my kids will want on a given day.

  13. What an amazing park. It’s a shame that none of the local playgrounds near me are that quality. We need to push our local councils to push nature within our childrens recreation areas!

  14. I love this park! I had three “forts” when I was a kid. One in the apple tree in our backyard. One in a big shrub down by the river. One in the woods near the playground. Even if your community doesn’t have something this beautiful, your imagination can help you create one of your own.

  15. I stumbled across this while researching ideas for a natural playground for the childcare center where I work. It is exactly what I was looking for! I love the creativity and imagination that it evokes in children. Does anybody have any more links like this?

  16. Stacey,

    I am a landscape architect and some of us are sick of “designing” plastic playgrounds. (“designing” because it is just picking stuff out of a cataloge) I am now being creative again and design natural playgrounds together with kids, parents and childcare center staff such as yourself. Depending on where in the country you are I can possible point you to designers like myself to help you with your efforts. Also I have some hints on where to find grants and other funding ideas for natural playgrounds. Contact me at anita(at)landcurrent(dot)com (I am writing it this way to avoid spam)

  17. Thanks again for these images. I am revisiting them again for ideas for our own natural playgrounds at Landcurrent. It seems to me that some of the “structures” in the images are short lived. I am wondering about that. Is there basically a pile of sticks and cloth and do new structures get built on this site all the time by the kids, sort of like the adventure playgrounds of the seventies? Let me know if you know more about this project, again it looks wonderful.

  18. i am a kid 12 years old i live on a 100acre farm and am bulding a small secret village for fun outside i agree to everything your saying but if want your kids to go outside more often you sould get a bunch of kids together and give them tools and supplys and let them find a place in the forest or in a field and let them build (this is for kids 10 and above)

  19. This certainly looks like fun, but it is still contrived. Just because it’s wood doesn’t mean it’s more natural. The structure and course is predetermined, thereby relieving children from the need to impose their own understanding upon the situation. Please know that I would love to bring my kiddo to this park, but it is not as akin to the forest as some may think.

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