On the Trails: Make Play A Priority

I’m a city kid who grew up with a mother passionate about gardening and spending time outdoors. Saturday mornings were often spent in our garden pulling weeds, planting bulbs, spreading mulch and trimming tree branches. Everyone in my family had a job, and we worked together to keep our garden maintained and beautiful.

Our house did not sit on a large piece of property, but we had a decent-sized backyard with a designated dirt patch for a patio my parents were hoping to put in. The patio was continually pushed off as different expenses arose year after year, and we kids could play in the dirt patch however we pleased. We spent hours digging deep holes to bury treasure, building Lincoln Log towns and playing in the mud.

We combed over the dirt patch every winter expecting a patio would come in the spring, which it eventually did, but it had become a blank canvas for us to have independent, creative play. Those spring and summer days spent goofing off in the backyard are some of my favorite childhood memories. We weren’t in a time crunch to be somewhere; there weren’t coaches or teachers telling us what to do. It was our own little world, and we created the story.

While we had lessons and busy school days throughout the year, weekends were spent with hikes up Little Cottonwood Canyon and trips to the family cabin. It was at these weekend family excursions that I developed a love for trails and hiking. On a trail, you are given the illusion of structure among the wild things, a clean pathway through the untamed nature for you to enjoy. During a hike or often at the summit, we were told to reflect on the experience and discussed our observations as a family. We were encouraged to be curious and engaged with nature.

We live in an age of unparalleled technology. We all know the advancements in tech are incredible and have benefited us in countless ways, but the rise of technological access has also resulted in a decrease of outdoor engagement. Outdoor educators, like the Upper Valley Trails Alliance, are using the term “nature deficit disorder” when referring to problems arising among young people.

While not an official diagnosis, nature deficit disorder is a term coined by Richard Louv, co-founder of the Children & Nature Network and author of Last Child in the Woods. Louv postulates that the rise in obesity, ADHD, anxiety/emotional issues and a decrease in creativity among children is a result of less time spent outdoors. Influences range from the rapid increase of access to technology and decreases of natural spaces in city planning to parental fear influenced by the news. These factors result in children spending more time indoors, often in front of the TV.

I would like to argue that independent, outdoor play in all seasons makes for a happy, creative child. Growing up in the heart of a rapidly developing city, I saw many of my friends and neighbors fall victim to the distractions of technology and a loss of outdoor engagement. I have my parents to thank for fostering a curiosity of nature and cultivated educational experiences. Even just allowing me to play independently in a patch of dirt in my backyard encouraged me to exercise creativity and ingenuity.

As an outdoor organization, the Upper Valley Trails Alliance encourages young children to be active and creative outdoors with our programs and projects, namely the Passport to Winter Fun program. This was designed to keep children physically active and spending time outdoors during the long New England winter by providing an interactive, printed passport and amazing incentive prizes. The Passport inspires kids to interact with nature, despite the cold, and spend less time interacting with screens.

Last year, we received numerous photos from parents of their kids enjoying the outdoors during winter, and we’re proud they credit our Passport program. We know that multigenerational play, work and education are the keys to better health and stronger communities. We design our programs to encourage exercise, creative play and problem-solving in natural settings that can serve as a respite from stressors of day-to-day life. When our kids use trails to play, work and learn outdoors, they are not only improving their mental and physical health, but potentially becoming role models and advocates for members of their families and towns.

This is the power of our educational alliance, with more than 30 schools and various home-school groups in the Upper Valley that participate in the Passport program. Thanks to our work together, we have now motivated and inspired thousands of participants and families to act in healthier, more creative ways — not only for themselves, but for their communities and our natural environment.

To learn more about the Passport to Winter Fun program, visit uvtrails.org

Written by Kaitie Eddington and published in the Valley News on September 28th, 2019.