By Heather Thornton

It only takes one week enjoying unstructured play in nature to reset a biological clock thrown off by the busy school year or lack of rest!

“Around the U.S., and even right here in Arizona, people spend far less time in nature than even 25 or 50 years ago. Urbanization and technology has drastically changed people’s relationship with nature,” says Dr. Denise Mitten, Graduate Chair of Adventure Education at Prescott College. Dr. Mitten has spent many years studying the positive effects of nature on people’s overall well being, and in turn, the declining rate in which we take advantage of the world around us.

“Many aspects of our culture now teach people not to spend time in nature,” she says. “Parents have become fearful about their children playing outdoors, and children who grow up in primarily built environments often fear nature, largely because it is unfamiliar.”

Experiencing the outdoors is not just about getting active. The real benefits of nature come through what experts call ‘unstructured play.’ This is unscheduled time where a child is able to be outside, relying on her or his imagination for entertainment. Free play, as opposed to games or structured activities, is the most essential type. Many studies have shown that it leads to positive physical, cognitive and emotional brain development.

Outdoor activity in the form of ‘unstructured play’ is not as common for today’s children due to technology, safety concerns and busy schedules. The Children & Nature Network notes that just 6% of children ages 9-13 play outside on their own, and the average American child spends just 28-49 minutes in unstructured outdoor play each week, less than a third of the recommended amount.
Mitten doesn’t deny the realities facing our society, which is why she says summer camp is a great avenue for kids to be in a safe environment and have concentrated, unstructured play at the same time. “Summer camp is more of an independent experience where children get to be imaginative, socialize with and make new friends – it’s a very free setting for the children.”

Dr. Mitten has a personal affinity for Girl Scout camp, as it is where her personal and professional relationship with the wilderness began. Girl Scout Camp Director Justina Burks of Shadow Rim Ranch in Payson agrees with Dr. Mitten’s notion: “The programs are themed and supervised to a certain extent, but campers have flexibility, can mold their activities, and have concentrated amounts of literal free play.”

In referencing her latest book, Dr. Mitten notes, “We now know this unstructured play triggers happy hormones and the relaxed alpha brainwaves, which have been linked to increased memory, creativity and ability to learn. This is known as the inoculation effect and research shows that it is present after just one week of summer camp, and has cumulative effects over time, even if just once a year.”

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