by Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S

From tree forts to snowball fights, playing outside is a rite of passage for children. They wear skinned elbows, burnt noses, and dirt between their toes like badges of honor. It doesn’t really matter what outside entails – the backyard or a forest, a swimming pool or a puddle – nature nurtures.

In a world driven by technology, it’s easy to forget this – kids these days are more iPad than lily pad. But disconnecting from nature comes at a cost.

Nature-Deficit Disorder

The term “Nature-Deficit Disorder” was coined by Richard Louv back in 2005 – it’s used to describe the increasing chasm between the great outdoors and childhood and how that chasm represents itself in behavioral patterns.

It’s a chasm deep and wide: today’s kids are spending fewer hours outside and fewer hours engaged in play.  When they do play, it’s more likely to be structured. In fact, the old “go outside and play” uttered by the peace-and-quiet-seeking parent has now been replaced by technology or other indoor activities. There is little focus on going outside and making up your own adventure as you go along.

But does this come at a cost for kids? Certainly!

From a physical health standpoint, the lack of outside time has increased the rates of childhood obesity; videogames will never burn the calories of a game of tag. From a mental health standpoint, the impact is noticeable as well.

In studies conducted at Cornell University, psychologists found that kids who lived near more natural resources had improved cognitive functioning. Children who live in nature are more resilient to stress and adversity. They’re also more inquisitive too: nature begets curiosity.

A propensity for staying indoors can also be damaging to Mother Earth. Kids who grow up in environments where they’re sheltered from nature are less likely to appreciate it. Thus, they’re less likely to fight to save the planet when they become adults.

Nature as a Co-Facilitator

Nature, it can be argued, is one of the great regulators – it gets us in touch with our roots, grounding us in the process. It tickles the senses and teaches. And it offers a perspective you’ll never get inside of four walls.

All of this makes nature not only an important part of childhood but an important part of play therapy.

In regards to the latter, what kinds of things can you do with your clients – how can you embrace the helping hand Mother Nature offers? Start by:

Thinking outside the playroom: There is no hard and fast rule that play therapy must take place indoors – healing can happen on a hike! Many things you do inside the playroom can be done outdoors: do a sand tray underneath a tree!

Bringing nature inside: If going outside doesn’t work for you or your client, consider bringing the outdoors inside. Many pieces of nature are easily portable. Grab a rock or a pinecone, bring them into the playroom, and paint them or create an art project.

Keeping an open-mind: Even if the great outdoors aren’t so great to you, keep an open-mind and allow your clients to embrace the experience if they so desire.

Playing a game: Games are a mainstay of growing up, but this goes beyond Monopoly and Memory. From catch to tag, the only game piece required is yourself.

Making time for nature – to run, to explore, to cultivate creativity – may be a vital step in the play therapy process. Nature lets children embrace their roots and explore their senses – so let Mother Nature be your partner. As the weather warms and summer beckons, make a point to take play therapy outside. The results may surprise you.