Nature Play…The Best Holiday Gift


With the holiday season in full swing, many of us are in search of the perfect gifts for the special young people in our lives. We want toys to be fun and if educational as well, even better. In fact, many parents are willing to pay high price tags for toys touted as "STEM," referring to those designed to promote science, technology, engineering, and mathematics with the goal of giving their child a head start in academics and future careers.  While these toys will not hurt children, they do not provide the best activities to develop useful skills. In Patrick A. Coleman’s June 2019 article on the website Fatherly he wrote, “In a recent report from the American Association of Pediatrics, researchers noted that play incorporating physical activity, pretending, and traditional toys like block and shape sorters, helped improve children’s skills.”

Coleman (2019) explains that the Toy Association’s defining characteristics of a great STEM toy “suggests these toys should be open-ended, relate to the real world, allow for trial & error, be hands-on, child-led, and offer chances for problem-solving, while also being gender neutral, encouraging creativity, building confidence, and promoting social and emotional skills. A close look at those characteristics reveals that the best STEM toy might be a game of tag or building a fort in the woods with friends, or playing blocks.”

Licensed child therapist, Angela Pruess, is also a proponent of spending time outdoors in nature play. In an article (n.d.) on her website, Parents with Confidence, she points to studies providing evidence of decreased mental health as children experience decreased contact with the natural world. Conversely, she provides “40 amazing benefits of nature play for kids” under the categories of mental and emotional health, physical health and character development.

Research conducted in the United Kingdom suggests, “Learning outdoors for just one lesson a week boosts learning and behaviour [sic] in primary school children. The research found that children’s wellbeing increased after they had spent time connecting with nature and that they gained educational benefits as well as wider personal and social benefits, (Horton, 2019).”

In addition to the strong evidence that it is extremely beneficial for children’s learning and development to spend time in nature exploring and playing, it is also important to them to play with important adults in their lives. In another article (n.d.), Angela Pruess highlights “priceless gifts to give your child this holiday season.” Pruess wrote, “Kids don’t need expensive toys, but they do need to play. It’s vital to their healthy development and emotional well-being. What’s even better than giving your child time to play? Setting time aside to play with them. Engaging in play alongside your child makes them feel seen and valued, as play is a young child’s primary language of communication.”

As I was developing the ideas for this blog post, I consulted with Jen Schnakenberg, Assistant Director of Education at the Pittsburgh Parks Conservancy, who shared (personal communication, November 6, 2019), “to my mind all of these articles are pointing to the idea that, even more than purchasable experiences, the best gift parents can give their children is time. That’s a STEM gift.”

Jen also reminded me of words from biologist and author, Rachel Carson: “If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” ― Rachel Carson

So, as you complete your holiday gift lists for the special children in your life, consider setting time aside for nature play dates in your Pittsburgh Parks. There is a world of wonder to discover, share and explore in every season. Happy Holidays!

Written by Beth Seibel, MBA

Beth is a communications and marketing professional with more than 20 years of experience putting plans and strategies in place to grab eyeballs and grow businesses. She has a passion for sustainability, nature, and all animals and is searching for her next professional role. Please visit her LinkedIn profile to learn more.