NEWCOMB - They gathered small sticks for a campfire, chased soccer-like balls around the gym with their toes, made "food" items out of birch bark and pine needles, and tossed rubber chickens and fake fish at each other. These weren't kids, they were actually adult educators, behaving like kids, and they were in the middle of learning new games and ways of having fun in order to bring new ideas back to the kids they work with.
The event was the "Get Out and Play!" conference, held at Newcomb Central School. It was hosted by the SUNY College of Environmental Science & Forestry's (ESF) Northern Forest Institute along with Children in Nature New York. The Newcomb Central School Class of 2013 provided lunch for all participants. Nearly 30 people from all over the state attended the event, which was comprised of a series of hands-on workshops. It was loaded with activities introduced by presenters, who are experts in the field of encouraging children to return to the world of free play and creative self-expression.
"Our society is teaching young people to avoid direct experience in nature. Well-meaning public school systems, media, and parents are effectively scaring children straight out of the woods and fields," according to Richard Louv, the author of the 2005 book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
The conference was designed to help educators discover (or rediscover) ways of re-introducing children to the joys of interacting with nature and playing in unstructured, self-created, and self-regulated activities. Current research supports the very positive effects of more exposure to nature and informal play. Kids are needing to re-learn how to play on their own.
Paul Hai, the program coordinator for the SUNY ESF Northern Forest Institute and co-founder of Children in Nature New York, organized this one-day series of hands-on workshops, along with Erin Vinson, education specialist at the Adirondack Ecological Center in Newcomb.
"Kids everywhere don't get enough nature-based play," said Hai. "There are plenty of organized sports, but kids miss out on non-structured opportunities to play and be creative."
Fewer school recess opportunities for children combined with a general trend away from enjoying the out-of-doors may be correlated with an increase in obesity, higher drop-out rates from organized sports, and greater stress in kids. Hai sees the participants of this conference (both presenters and educators) as "pioneers" in the movement to get kids back outside.
"It's just nice to be surrounded by other people who believe in this approach to working with kids," said Joe San Antonio, who works with kids in Hamilton County.
With the success of the first event, he believes that it was truly beneficial and that, "all participants will want to come back for more and will recommend this conference to others."
"The day was very well-organized and I loved the new games activities with all their energy and creativity," said Kelly Nessle of Johnsburg, who has been working to provide outdoor activities for kids with the TREKS organization.
Hai noted how diverse the populations of presenters and educators were, and indicated how much he appreciated their support of this very noble effort - returning kids to the world of creative play.