Prescott Should be Serious About Play

by Ellen Bashor, Community Nature Center Education Director, City of Prescott

It sounds simple, maybe even looks simple, but modern brain science shows it’s far from it. Playing is one of the most universal activities we can engage in. But why do we do it? And why is your Recreation Services Department so serious about play? 

This is because play is vital to healthy and successful whole-child development. Some research has even shown that inadequate play time, termed “play deprivation,” has serious side effects. Knowing how important play is to our health and happiness, your City’s Community Nature Center has been investigating this phenomena further. 

Turns out, we’ve got a play problem. Not just Prescott: American children and youth across the nation spend less than half the time playing outdoors than their parents did. Plus, children are spending twice as much time in front of a screen as they are engaging in healthy full-body play. 

The pandemic hasn’t helped. With parents and guardians managing so much uncertainty, playtime has been taking a backseat. We want to encourage everyone to let play take the driver’s seat for a little while each week. 

Here are just a few reasons why: 

  • Play is good for your body. 
  • Play is good for your brain. 
  • Play is good for your heart. 
  • BONUS: Play is a pathway to success. 

First, play is a simple and fun way to engage in physical activity outside of organized sports. For young ones, this might look like swinging and sliding at the playground, building a fort in the yard, hopscotch, catching bugs, or going on a scavenger hunt. For adults, this might be kayaking at Watson Lake, exploring the trails, charades with friends, fetch with the dog, or tossing the Frisbee.

These kinds of full-body play not only build muscle and promote healthy body weight, they improve balance, coordination and flexibility. For children, this kind of play is essential for fine and gross motor development, healthy bone density and heart and lung strength. 

In play, the mind and heart are also hard at work. Play is how humans develop (and maintain) healthy cognitive and emotional processing skills. For all of us, play can also help with executive functions. This includes working memory, organization, flexible thinking, and emotional and impulse control. 

For young ones, the self-regulation piece of play is very important. It supports making and maintaining friendships and learning to cooperate. This fosters emotional resilience, which is especially important right now. Playful time outside at the park, at the lake or in our yard can notably lower our stress and anxiety no matter our age. 

Yet, research shows that not all play is created equal. Outdoor play, often referred to as “nature play” has additional benefits that can’t be ignored. Nature play increases vitamin D levels, improves eyesight, and builds strong immune systems. What does this mean for us playful people? 

If we want to maximize the benefits of playing, the outdoors is the place to do it. Outdoors, a log, stones, and pinecone can be a spaceship adventure, a fancy restaurant or a trip to the zoo. Every flower is different, every boulder, every cloud we watch. The outdoors provides the most vocabulary-rich and sensory-rich place for all of us to learn and grow. 

The bonus? Outdoor learning increases engagement in traditional academic subjects and can even increase state test scores. For next generation scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs success can start with opting outside to play. 

Prescott, Arizona is definitely Nature Play City, USA. With over 550 miles of trails, surrounded by national forest, 10 parks, eight open spaces totaling approximately 3,000 acres — the opportunities for nature play are endless.

To help with your play, your local library offers adventure backpacks to check out, there’s a story walk at Granite Creek Park, your Community Nature Center has a nature play area open every day, 7 a.m. to sunset, with a comprehensive list of offerings available here: www.prescott-az.gov. 

If you’re feeling stuck, we also recommend these free guides: A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play by Ken Finch or Nature Play at Home from the Natural Learning Initiative and National Wildlife Federation. It’s time to get serious and play a little.

See you outside!