Posted by: Jennifer Scarlott on
Jan 04, 2009
The days are short here in New York. The pale winter sunlight fades by 4:30 in the afternoon, giving way to interminably long, pitch-black nights. Icicles lengthen, new snow falls upon old. Giant lily pads of ice form on the river, making me wonder when I will spot my first ice frog, hopping from pad to pad. Across the river, the cliffs of the Palisades look ancient, timeless, but the snow among the brown tree trunks takes on lovely winter hues of purple, blue, even pink in the morning sun. January in New York is a time of hibernation, but, there is still plenty of life around us. Screech owls hoot at night, Canada geese honk at daybreak, and silent bald eagles and red-tailed hawks soar on invisible spirals of air, in broad daylight. Nature nurtures, even in the depths of winter. One hundred and fifty years ago, nineteenth century psychologist Herbert Spencer, asserted in his book Principals of Psychology
, that children play simply to discharge excess energy. Because his claim became "common wisdom," schools and communities all over the world built playgrounds that would allow children to race around in circles, and swing and climb maniacally, burning off all that annoying "excess" energy. Since Spencer's time, we've discovered that children play because developmentally they MUST, that it is in large part through play that children learn. And more and more studies are now showing that playing outdoors, in nature, is one of the best, most healthy, most nurturing ways to learn and grow. Schools and communities wise enough to heed this new knowledge are now looking at the paved and sterile play areas provided to children, and realizing that, because they stifle anything remotely resembling nature, these playgrounds stifle children. Millions of playgrounds are grey, not green, and the children who play in them tend to become listless, frantic, or both. Don't believe me? Can't remember your own childhood, "playing" in these places? Go take a look at the nearest fenced lot where local children play. Small wonder they are retreating in growing numbers from the ersatz nature grown-ups supply, to the great indoors, with its myriad outlets and screens. There, their imaginations can soar! Or can they?