By Tracy Scherdt
Each intern in the Nature Academy internship program at Matthaei Botanical Gardens & Nichols Arboretum chooses a summer project to research and report on. The project culminates in a poster displayed in Matthaei’s public indoor spaces. Interns also write a blog post about their project concept or the research they’ve conducted.
“Every child should have mud pies, grasshoppers, water bugs, tadpoles, frogs, mud turtles, elderberries, wild strawberries, acorns, chestnuts, trees to climb. Brooks to wade, water lilies, woodchucks, bats, bees, butterflies, various animals to pet, hayfields, pinecones, rocks to roll, sand, snakes, huckleberries and hornets. And any child who has been deprived of these has been deprived of the best part of education.” — Luther Burbank, American horticulturalist and botanist, 1849 – 1926
Play is more than just fun; it is an essential feature and function of human development that is integral to lifelong health and well-being. Children—and adults—need play for healthy cognitive, physical, and socio-emotional development. There is also a substantial body of evidence that demonstrates the importance of play in natural spaces. Nature connectedness has been linked with mindfulness and stress reduction, which influence psychological well-being. Children who are connected to a place, or the outdoors in general, show strengthened self-awareness, emotional regulation, responsiveness, and relationships. In contrast with what we know to be beneficial, children are seeing less and less outdoor time and spending more of their days in front of a screen or sitting at a desk. According to a 2015 report by market researcher Childwise, the average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen. If you speak to older generations about what their childhood looked like in regard to play, you will be hard-pressed to find a person who does not mention free play outdoors, whether that was in their backyard, nature, or most often, in the neighborhood. This generation’s children are growing up with iPhones in hand and a whole other world to explore on their screens, but they are being deprived of the unstructured, imaginative, exploratory play of yesteryear in favor of this new tech, and they are suffering for it. The increase in diagnoses of ADHD in schoolchildren is one of the more obvious (and urgent) signs that children are not getting their recommended daily dose of outdoor play and exploration.
Nature play is often messy, and always engaging. Above is our supplies table after children concocted nature potions at our pop-up activity.
Structures built by children out of natural materials and decorations during a fairy homes nature play pop-up.
Here at Matthaei Botanical Gardens and Nichols Arberetum, we believe in the benefits of outdoor play and exploration, and we have curated a space for just such a purpose: the Gaffield Children’s Garden, where I am working this summer as the nature play intern. This garden space was specifically designed for families to bring their children to explore, learn, and play outdoors. Nature play is at the heart of the conception of the garden—truly a space for kids to be kids. Children who visit the Gaffield Children’s Garden are invited to discover with all of their senses: including taste! In my own personal experience with the Gaffield, it is an imaginative child’s dream play space. You can build a fort in our builder’s garden, and make mud pies to serve for dinner in our mud play area. After that, you may want to find a space of your own in our secret spaces, crawling beneath large bushes and discovering an insect’s home. If you get hungry from all the play, there’s the grower’s garden, where you can pick and eat the peas, strawberries, lettuce, tomatoes, and much, much more.
This summer, we are continuing our Nature Play Pop-Up series in the Gaffield Children’s Garden. The pop-up activities run every Monday morning from 10-11:30, and some Sunday afternoons from 3-4:30. The intended purpose of the Nature Play Pop-Ups is to encourage the use of natural materials in play both here at the gardens and at home. The activities use only materials that families are able to find at home, in the backyard, at the local park, or can be easily made from materials gathered in any of these locations. The hope is that families will gather ideas for nature play learning that they can implement with their children at home. In this way, the experiences children adore in our children’s garden can be relived and reimagined whenever inspiration strikes at home. Although the Gaffield cannot physically be in every backyard, garden, balcony, or living room, we continue to try our best.
My internship project this summer is to conduct an evaluation of our Nature Play Pop-Up series so that we may better understand what support families need in implementing our nature play activities at home. We also want to know how families are hearing about the pop-ups, how often we have repeat attendees and first time visitors, and which play spaces in the Gaffield Children’s Garden are their child/children’s favorites. I have only just begun surveying parents and caretakers at the pop-up activities, and the evaluation process will continue through the end of the summer. We are hoping that the results of the survey will guide us to be more effective demonstrators of the essential benefits of nature play, as well as reveal to us what obstacles families are finding themselves faced with when trying to bring nature play to their homes. Stay tuned, and play on!
Tracy Scherdt is the nature play intern in the Gaffield Children’s Garden this summer. She graduated in May with a dual degree in Program in the Environment (PitE) and creative writing & literature, with a specialization in PitE of environmental education and justice. Tracy is a lifelong Ann Arborite with many fond memories of visiting Matthaei both as a child and as a young adult. She looks forward to a fun, educational, play-filled summer. Tracy’s internship was made possible by a gift from a donor to support research into the effectiveness of children’s gardens in engaging children in nature play.
 Wakefield, Jane. “Children spend six hours or more a day on screens.” BBC News, BBC, 27 Mar. 2015, www.bbc.com/news/technology-32067158. Accessed 26 June 2018.