Connecting to Nature: Thoughts on Free and Directed Play

Connecting to Nature: Thoughts on Free and Directed Play


Joe Baust

“I sincerely believe that for the child, and for the parent seeking to guide him, it is not half so important to know as to feel.” (Rachel Carson)


How do we provide activities for children to go outside and explore nature? This question was asked to a group of persons providing an author with ideas and suggestions to help encourage children to spend less time inside and more outside.

It became clear after several conference calls that what was driving our suggestions was a function of our learning, teaching styles, and our professional beliefs. Every one of us were interested in children, in nature and providing ways to facilitate the process of providing motivation for children going outside and playing in nature.

An author who gathered us together, often made the point during his book tours and speeches that he learned to go outdoors and play on his own. He was not a child of today’s world where there are so many distractions with computers, television, electronics on demand, and so on.  He was not directed or did he require an extensive support system to coerce him; he just went outdoors and was inventive. It was clear from his descriptions of childhood he enjoyed creating his own fun, using cardboard boxes, making forts, digging in the dirt, and exploring the local stream.

Yet he had been asked to write a book that provided direction for parents, grandparents, and teachers. The reason is simple, not all persons feel comfortable being outside, not all persons have had experiences in nature to give them a sense of security about what they may do with children outdoors. It was akin to a cookbook or self-help book to tell adults where to begin and what to do. Given the proclivity and mindset in these times, adults want to be “right.” In fact many adults believe that anything worth doing is worth providing structure and direction. So being correct, having structure are a measure for many adults to assess if what their children are doing has value.

Clearly the author was conflicted between direction and the need to provide a how-to book since he believed individuals needed to explore on their own. At the same time we were being asked to help him define which way to proceed. One might imagine there was a difference of opinion amongst his consultants, five environmental educators about how to provide nature to children, whether “free play” and “directed play.”

 One point of view expressed was, how does one write a book to have children explore nature without providing some structure, specifics that would be more than platitudes? Since the clamor was, please help us find ways to positively position children to want to go outside, how does one do this without directed play?

As our group began to talk, our differences became more pronounced. The variance was based on the “hows,” “whys” and “whens” of encouraging children to go outdoors. Given these questions, how might one focus on how to help parents and other adult leaders encourage children to go outdoors, without being overbearing?

As we discussed these fundamental questions I thought about a quote by Rachel Carson: “It is more important to pave the way for the child to want to know than to put him on a diet of facts he is not ready to assimilate.” Carson often went with her nephew Roger on walks in nature, and provided very little direction other than Roger providing her with where to go.

Often, directed outdoor play defeats the very purposes of making children want to go outside, so they could explore. To me providing direction meant teaching them what we wanted them to know and do as opposed to letting them set their own agenda. In fact my experience as a child was when I was outside, I did not want to be told what to do and how to do things. I wanted to explore on my own. When I was told what to do, I often did anything other than what I was told. Being outside and to create and follow my own thoughts made me want to stay outside longer and look forward to the next time.

What was a sticking point for consensus in our group was how we might “pave the way” and what that meant. Two people shared the following point of view: “In these times children are unable to go out into nature or the outdoors and not be directed. They simply do not know how to “play” without being told how to play.

That brought to mind Peter Gray’s quote (2008): “In reflection, I recognize there are many parents and teachers who believe that without direction, children are lost. Even worse, without direction, children are not learning anything of value, or are not addressing ‘standards.’ Yet, when we teach children that in order to do anything, they must be directed, perhaps the message is that anything other than direction in nature and the outdoors is without value. In a broader way this may be a stumbling block for being able to work independently.” He suggested (2013): “Play supports the development of executive function, and particularly self-directed control. …Free play is nature’s means of teaching children that they are not helpless.”

In the final analysis this new book had to provide ideas for adults to work with children in nature. Yet I continue to think how can we place the locus of control away from us, as “Guides on the side” instead of “Sages on the stage?” Each of us has a certain safety net with regard to what we do, how we do it, and how much we feel is necessary to show, demonstrate, and have children mimic.

As a classroom teacher I was always seeking ways of having children engage in creative writing. Once I brought music to the classroom and played this for my fifth and sixth grade students. The selection I chose was Gershwin’s “An American in Paris.” I asked them to listen to the music and tell me what they were hearing. I provided some rough prompts. It was not long into the music that someone came to me and told me, “I just don’t know what this is.” I asked a few questions and the child seemed to understand and went back to his seat to write. Summarily I had two children, then three, then four and before I knew it, nearly the whole class was in line to ask for help. I decided to give the questions to the whole class. However my words were insufficient and provided little idea for them of how to proceed. Out of exasperation I said, could you hear those cars and horns in the traffic of a city? I think I had even given them the title of the music.

What was the outcome of that experience? Every one of those writings from the children was about traffic and horns in Paris. I had pretty well directed them to what I was hearing and what I wanted them to hear and write their essay. I was crushed that what I had started as something to help them interpret and write, became their essays that met what I heard and thought.

One might say, the metaphor you use is a reason why we should provide more direction because children are unable to stumble upon or discover on their own. My thought is, while I knew what I wanted the students to do, my way of preparing them was totally inadequate. It was not a function of my students not being able to do the activity; it was my inability to communicate well. I could have decided this activity was proof they could not cope with an open-ended activity. That would have been a confirmation. But, I tried many other times to do things and I became better at helping them immerse themselves into an activity.

The parable of course to nature and children is, while there may be discomfort in children when they have outside free-play; it is also very easier for us to direct them. We then defeat the very purpose of getting them to be engaged in free-play and their own explorations. We like to “be in charge” and when we cast off the locus of control, what could be deemed as frivolous, can be the prelude to some very serious discoveries by children.

By being a part of the group helping to provide direction to an author for a book on children and nature, it occurred to me that all of us had our limits and thoughts about free-play. Sometimes our boundaries prevent children from learning how to play through their own experiences. Sometimes those boundaries have nothing to do with a child’s ability to be engaged in free-play, but are tied to our own beliefs and the fences we impose on ourselves. Perhaps it is our comfort zone regarding oversight or our need to control a situation.

What is best for children in sharing nature and the outdoors with children? I suspect the answer to that question lies within us, not within them. Sharing nature to many hinges on what we have to tell them. In that case free-play really has no role, perhaps an endpoint only.

To encourage children to go outdoors and in nature, maybe we must ask ourselves questions: how did I learn about nature? Can children teach me something about free-play that extends my boundaries from what I believe and what I have practiced?

What do you think?


Jessica Lahey, “ Why Free Play Is the Best Summer School.” The Atlantic, June 20, 2014.

Carson, Rachel. The Sense of Wonder. (New York, NY: Harper Collins). 1998, Page 56.

Gray, Peter. Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life. (New York, NY: Basic Books) 2008.

Gray, Peter. “The Value of Play 1: The Definition of play and gives insights.”Psychology Today, Nov 19, 2008.




Thanks Emilian for the kind words. I suppose when it comes to working with our own children we have to gauge things on the basis of what believe are limits - theirs and ours. At the same time, parents have the proclivity to want so much for their children, the limits are extended beyond what is good for them and what we want for them. I am not saying this is the case with you, but parents need to be sure their zeal for having their own children experience nature, not overextend the sense we would use with other children. As Rachel Carson expresses very well, being a partner in nature should be that, exploring with them as opposed to being the purveyor of knowledge...or what we believe is best for them to know. All of this probably falls under knowing our own beliefs, boundaries - and our children's as well.

I really enjoyed reading this, and I especially liked your suggestion that a big part of the answer lies within each and every one of us -- our own beliefs and boundaries regarding oversight and control. The compromise I've tried to make, when it comes to my own parenting, has been to encourage free play while trying to facilitate moments of awareness and curiosity with respect to the environment. In other words, I don't think that free play in nature is always enough to nurture a sense of wonder and care about the environment. For example, playing in the snow, building snow forts, etc. is wonderful but it can also be an opportunity to sit still for three minutes and listen to the sounds of winter, or wonder about the shelters and preparations that familiar animals like squirrels have to make in winter. I feel okay punctuating free play with a few such moments of purposeful connection to nature.