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Natural Awakenings Naples and Fort Myers

The Importance of Outdoor Playtime: Area Professionals Prescribe a Daily Dose of “Vitamin N”

Apr 03, 2011 08:40PM ● By Linda Sechrist

Even before his introduction in Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv sets the tone for his book’s content with a quote from a fourth-grade boy in the San Diego County school district. Where the sun shines some 359 days a year and only 10 inches of rain fall annually, Louv’s young interviewee notes his preference for playing indoors: “I like to play indoors, ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.”

In Southwest Florida, another land of sunshine, several proponents agree with Louv about the benefits of outdoor playtime for children and adults. Lea Leonard, a Naples licensed clinical social worker and owner of Wings of Change, supports her enthusiasm for time spent in nature with the results of a recent study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “Although it primarily focuses on children with attention deficit disorder (ADD), Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings examines the relationship between children’s nature exposure through leisure activities and their attentional functioning,” says Leonard.

In the study, parents were surveyed regarding their child’s attentional functioning after activities in several settings, and results indicated that children fared better after activities in green settings. The “greener” a child’s play area, the less severe were his or her attention deficit symptoms.

The Natural World is Restorative

“Contact with nature may support attentional functioning in a population of more than 2 million children in the United States who desperately need attentional support,” enthuses Leonard, who works with children, adolescents, young adults and families. Alarmed at the number of her clients that spend their free time in front of a computer playing video games, Leonard points out five difficulties exhibited by these children: social difficulties due to isolation; trouble making friends and keeping them; challenges in problem solving; difficulty with group activities; and behavioral issues within the family system.

“Some of these children are so focused on playing the game, getting time for the game and thinking about the game, that they react with frustration and irritation when told they must do something else,” notes Leonard, who recommends that families strike a healthy balance by limiting their children’s time spent on video and/or computer pastimes. “Insist that your children play outside or join other children in outdoor activities,” she advises, pointing to the area’s many choices for nature activities.

The “greener” a child’s play area, the less severe were his or her attention deficit symptoms.


Lindsay Smith, a member of the Naples Community Garden Project, is the mother of 5-year-old Cooper, 3-year-old Cameron and 1-year-old Annie. “Even when Annie is fussy and hasn’t slept much, I can take her outside and it’s like hitting her reset button and she’s good to go,” jokes Smith. Outdoor playtime is essential to the Smith children, who never tire of searching for bugs, lizards and snails. Smith, who joins her children in a friendly game of catch-and-release, says, “I never thought I’d be my children’s accomplice in studying, but their everyday delight and sense of wonderment is priceless.”

Regular visits to the Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Naples Botanical Garden and Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary are among the family’s favorite nature outings. “My husband’s favorite destination for observing nature with the children is Corkscrew, where we all take part in noting our animal and bug sightings on a tally board,” advises Smith.

Social Skills and Creativity Flourish

“Interacting with nature provides opportunities for children to build reasoning skills and enhance their awareness of their surroundings, thereby improving their observational skills,” says Leonard, who believes that nature walks with animal and plant sightings provide opportunities for cognitive growth, not to mention vitamin D and oxygen.

Kimberly Rodgers, also a licensed clinical social worker and the founder of Monarch Therapy, advises that her young clients, who spend a healthy amount of playtime outdoors, are better able to interact socially. In Rodgers’ experience, free play is essential to a child’s development. “While soccer practice, dance classes or piano lessons can provide children with opportunities to learn teamwork and self-discipline, they miss out on free play, where their imagination can soar and their creativity can flow,” she advises. “I’ve noticed that children who enjoy unstructured playtime are more in tune with themselves, nature and others.”

“Adults forget that, for children, it’s exciting simply to be outside,” says Smith, who lives in a master-planned development with zero lot lines. An ordinary retention pond lies behind the Smith home. “The kids get excited to go catch-and-release fishing in the pond, where they get to watch turtles sun themselves, ducks lay eggs, and ducklings hatch. For them it’s just as exhilarating as being at Corkscrew,” enthuses Smith, whose teaching degree gives her insight into child development.

“I believe that my children are better balanced when they have the right mix of free play time; adventure thinking, which allows them to use their imagination; and TV/computer time,” explains Smith. “I tell them that playing outside makes their brain grow and, because they are little, bigger is always better,” she says with a chuckle. It’s a sound that mingles well with her children’s giggles as they explore the best of Mother Nature.


Wings of Change, The Moorings Presbyterian Church, Moss Hall, 791 Harbour Dr., Naples 34103. Call 239-287-0810 or visit Wings-of-Change.com.

Monarch Therapy, LLC, Quail Plaza, 4500 Executive Dr., Ste. 105, Naples 34110. Call 239-687-8286 or visit MonarchTherapy.com.

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