Summer VILLAGE: Exploring the link between unstructured outside playtime and healthy childhood development

At Living Earth School, students learn wilderness survival tips, naturalist skills and how to track animals, among other things. Photo: Courtesy Living Earth School At Living Earth School, students learn wilderness survival tips, naturalist skills and how to track animals, among other things. Photo: Courtesy Living Earth School

Inside a gigantic twig nest, 5-year-old Colter Vincenti flaps his arms.

“Help me find food,” he trills.

Colter and his mom, Leora Vincenti, have come for the first time to Wildrock, a new nonprofit nature “playscape” located in northwestern Albemarle County.

“It’s pretty simple,” says Vincenti. “Kids are boiling with energy and nature can absorb it.”

By the gurgling creek that runs through the bottom of Wildrock’s 28-acre property, Colter folds his “wings” and watches the current intently.

This is just what Wildrock’s founder, Carolyn Schuyler, hoped for when she envisioned an intentional space for outdoor play. Schuyler’s background as a psychotherapist informs her organization’s mission to foster a healing connection between kids, their families and nature.

Ivy Creek's 215-acre preserve offers family programs, natural and cultural history talks, open barn days and a twice-monthly Little Naturalists program. Photo: Cramer Photo
Ivy Creek’s 215-acre preserve offers family programs, natural and cultural history talks, open barn days and a twice-monthly Little Naturalists program. Photo: Cramer Photo

“Nature is a lifelong source of resilience,” she says. “I’ve worked for many years supporting people who’ve had some kind of traumatic incident, and I’ve noticed that it really helps when they have a reservoir of happy memories in nature.”

Wildrock’s two-acre playscape was carefully designed based on the research of David Sobel, a professor at Antioch College who traveled the world looking for common themes in child’s play. He found a universal fascination for certain themes, like secret passages and caring for animals. Wildrock incorporates as many of these concepts as possible into its structures and spaces, with an aim of supporting all stages and facets of childhood development. In addition to the giant nest, kids can stage performances in the music and drama playhouse, explore, problem-solve and meditate while walking the stone-lined labyrinth, cook up make-believe meals in “Nature’s Kitchen” or retreat to the safety of a child-sized hobbit house.

But the unadorned stream is what first inspired Schuyler. After witnessing how her own kids were so drawn to playing along its banks, she thought: “All kids deserve to have a similar experience.”

“Every child should have lots of memories of being free to be themselves, to explore nature and make it their own,” she says.

Nature Deficit Disorder

In 2008, humanity reached an important tipping point; for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than in rural environments.

“Our physiology is still evolved for being in nature,” says Schuyler. “There’s a lot of research now that shows that living in urban settings is a risk factor for anxiety and depression; it’s hard on our nervous system and sets us off for symptoms.”

The consequences of decreased time in nature, especially for kids, have been documented by journalist Richard Louv, who coined the term Nature Deficit Disorder in his book Last Child in the Woods. Though not meant to be a medical diagnosis, Nature Deficit Disorder describes the increase of anxiety, inability to focus and other problematic childhood behavior he argues is associated with insufficient time outdoors.

This same concern inspires the work of Jenny Roe, professor at the University of Virginia in the department of urban and environmental planning. Roe researches the link between greenspace and mental, physical and social well-being. She has found that in addition to reducing levels of childhood obesity, access to the outdoors also improves attention and self-discipline and promotes better stress regulation.

UVA professor Jenny Roe researches the link between greenspace and mental, physical and social well-being. Photo: Dan Addison/UVA University Communications
UVA professor Jenny Roe researches the link between greenspace and mental, physical and social well-being. Photo: Dan Addison/UVA University Communications

“Kids that engage with nature in the outdoor classroom in school show improved memory recall from learning tasks outside as compared to those tasks done indoors,” Roe says. They also show improved social behavior and cooperation.

Access to digital technology changes the way children learn and develop.

“Screen time is a very stimulating input that is highly structured,” says Beverly Ingram, long-time English as a Second or Other Language teacher and founder of Go Into Nature, through which she leads workshops, classes and individual sessions in nature-based therapy.

“What nature provides is a chance for kids (and adults) to learn how to function when they’re not having stimulus coming at them that was crafted by someone else,” she says.

Not only does nature encourage creative and intuitive expression, it also balances the intensity of urban and technological overstimulation.

“Nature is gentler,” Ingram says. “It’s slower and calming and rhythmic. It gives kids a chance to see what happens in their own bodies and minds.”

Imagination, mindfulness and social development

Though now more focused on her work with adults, Ingram’s 15-plus years of experience with children has taught her that nature can be a powerful ally for fostering healthy development. Ingram finds that working through the senses and the body is the best way to quickly connect.

“Even the most ADHD kid will slow down in nature because they get intrigued with something. They’ll be focused and interested in exploring it. That is mindfulness for a child.”

Something she sees outdoors more often than in the classroom is the prevalence of creative play.

A new 28-acre playspace in northwestern Albemarle, Wildrock encourages kids to interact with nature—with a giant nest, a hobbit house, a stone-lined labyrinth and more. Photo: John Robinson
A new 28-acre playspace in northwestern Albemarle, Wildrock encourages kids to interact with nature—with a giant nest, a hobbit house, a stone-lined labyrinth and more. Photo: John Robinson

“One of my biggest concerns has been seeing these children with no aptitude for imagination,” she says. In groups, children who are more comfortable with creative play model for the others. But, Ingram says, they need unstructured time to develop this skill. The diversity of nature encourages creativity in a way that half an hour of recess on the playground cannot.

Ingram has noticed that kids like to find a place in the woods and settle, wanting to return and develop it as their home.

“This reflects how we think as humans, how we develop our ideas of roles in society and how we develop a sense of safety and comfort in the homes we create.”

George Mackaronis, environmental education and PE teacher, recounts how this same phenomenon takes place at Free Union Country School. There, students have created a town in the woods named Creativity-ville.

“At recess, everyone runs down to their self-built homes, shops, businesses, court houses, restaurants and stores. Houses move, menus change, smaller towns are created, conflicts arise, clay pots are made and traded, currency is exchanged, pine cones are traded for dried fruit and the imaginations of these kids literally run wild.”

Mackaronis believes that the social and emotional learning that the children experience in Creativity-ville is something that even expert teachers could not replicate.

“I don’t think it could happen in any other setting than nature,” he says.

Fifteen-year-old Charlottesville High School freshman Edie Aten puts it this way: “When I go outside, I feel like I am part of something bigger than myself, something beautiful that I may never truly understand.” Aten attended summer camp at the Living Earth School (see sidebar) at the ages of 9, 11 and 13. She likes to explore trails and unwind after school by the stream near her home in Charlottesville’s Greenbrier neighborhood.

“Having that wonder [in nature] from a very young age has made me who I am.”

This toy appropriate for all ages

Despite its proven benefits, taking the time and space to be in nature remains a challenge for many parents, teachers and childcare providers. Demands of work, school and extracurricular activities often means busy, structured and goal-oriented lifestyles. But perhaps the biggest barrier is the discomfort many adults feel being in nature themselves. Ingram and Schuyler both argue that developing a relationship with nature can be simple for anyone.

“Parents who didn’t have the advantage of growing up with nature or don’t feel comfortable just have to create the intention of having a curious, slow time together. They can discover things with their kids, side by side,” says Ingram.

Schuyler agrees. “I’m a totally frazzled mom and I don’t always do what I preach, but if I take my daughter out, we both benefit. It’s not only her,” she says. “If I’m slowed down, and I’m happier, then she’s happier. So you don’t only do it for your kids, you do it for yourself.”

The enthusiasm with which she and Ingram do their work reflects the power and joy that springs from their own deep relationships with nature.

“If we take the time and space to encourage kids to have that kind of unhurried wonder in even what seems ordinary,” says Schuyler, “they’re going to find out that the ordinary is extraordinary.”

As for a 5-year-old’s take on things?

“Meow!” says Colter. “I like Legos!”

Only an adult would think to interrupt valuable play time with a question like “Why do you like being in nature?”

But later, as clouds gather in the sky and drops begin to fall, Colter captures what Schuyler might call the extraordinary. He stills his body, cocks an ear and proclaims: “Listen! When it rains the trees rattle.”

Pro tips

Here’s how to get outdoors with your kids, according to the folks behind a few of Charlottesville’s most nature-focused programs.

Beverly Ingram, founder, Go Into Nature

Know that you as the adult are just presenting an opportunity. Nature is the teacher. Trust that nature has everything your child needs. Don’t feel like you have to do or plan very much.

Allow the timelessness of childhood wonder to happen in yourself. If it happens in yourself, you don’t have to worry whether it will happen for the child. It will.

Carolyn Schuyler, founder, Wildrock

Remember that children are wired to love nature. They only learn from us (adults) not to.

There is no need to make a big deal about going into nature. Find one tree somewhere in your area. Visit it regularly so your child gets to know it. Watch how it changes through the seasons. Invite observational questions like “What do you notice? What are you curious about?”

Be okay with some clothes getting muddy.

If you’re really busy, which most families are, five minutes in nature is better than nothing. Work with what you have and find joy in what you have, even if it’s a window box.

Bruce Gatlin-Austin, education programs coordinator, Ivy Creek Natural Area

Spend regular time outside without a plan. Go barefoot. Listen. Count butterflies. Draw birds at a bird feeder. Be silent and see how far and how much you can hear. Enjoy hot, cold, damp and dry weather. Smell rain. Sit safely on a covered porch and experience the passing of a thunderstorm. Walk through puddles. Teach kids that being outdoors is wonderful, not by telling them or watching a video out about it, but by letting them experience it.

George Mackaronis, environmental education and PE teacher at Free Union Country School; co-founder, Greenstone Adventures

Cultivate curiosity in your children. Be a student with them, and discover new things as they do. Sharing that excitement will not only inspire them, but it will create a shared experience that you and they will never forget!

Hub Knott, co-founder, Living Earth School

Kids naturally gravitate towards different activities like climbing trees, playing in mud, skipping rocks, hiding, building a fort or making fire. Watch for these and/or set the stage for them to happen, then step back and let the fun begin. When you notice the energy starting to wane or kids getting tired, change the activity or head home. “Pull it at the peak” we call it. Then next time, they’ll be stoked to go outside.

Tell them a story the night before in bed. Tell them there is a spot you want to show them. Plant seeds of what they might see, that there is a magical kingdom out there full of all these cool things. Make it seem special and not routine. Be excited with them. Leave the iPhone in the car and be present. Model enthusiasm and engage with nature and your kids.

Photo: Courtesy Living Earth School
Photo: Courtesy Living Earth School

Play places

A sampling of local organizations making the kid-nature Connection.


Wildrock opened in April of 2017 as a grass-roots nonprofit committed to promoting nature play for health and happiness. With an outdoor “play-scape” intentionally designed to promote childhood development, as well as trails and open meadows, Wildrock invites families and children to have positive and formative experiences in nature. Wildrock aims to host all Charlottesville City School preschoolers, as well as private groups, families and kids of all ages. Available by appointment for groups of 19+ on weekdays and to the public by reservation every Saturday. Wildrock is located in northwestern Albemarle County on Rt. 810.

The Living Earth School

The Living Earth School combines traditional wisdom and modern techniques to help kids develop a deeper connection with nature. Children that attend Living Earth School programs learn wilderness survival skills, Coyote mentoring, naturalist skills, animal tracking, and develop a sense of awareness, place and community within nature. Best known for their summer camp programs in Sugar Hollow, the Living Earth School also hosts year-round programs and classes for both children and adults in the Charlottesville and Afton area.

Greenstone Adventures

Greenstone Adventures offers outdoor immersion backpacking trips to 7th-12th graders in Central Virginia with the goal of inspiring critical thinking, problem solving, cooperative communication, confidence and independence in nature. Co-founders George Mackaronis and Andrew Eaton draw on their combined backpacking and educational backgrounds to provide youth with meaningful and challenging experiences in the Shenandoah National Park and George Washington and Jefferson National Forests.


Located on the campus of Mountaintop Montessori School, Summer SEED camp offers kids the opportunity to explore local ecology hands-on, get dirty cultivating the school garden and taste the fruits of their work through cooking classes and fresh garden-grown meals. The SEED program encourages kids to develop their understanding of nature through art, games, garden chores, science experiments and more.

Ivy Creek Foundation and Natural Area

Ivy Creek Natural Area hosts field trips for area schools and for programs such as Scouts and the Boys and Girls Club. In 2016, over 1,500 students experienced Ivy Creek’s 215-acre preserve, learning about the site’s natural history, and getting more familiar with local ecology through specifically-themed tours. Ivy Creek, located on Earlysville road on the outskirts of Charlottesville, offers family programs, natural and cultural history talks, open barn days and a twice-monthly Little Naturalists program. Ivy Creek has six miles of trails and is open to the public every day from 7am to sunset.

Go Into Nature

Founder Beverly Ingram combines ecotherapy, mindfulness and stress-trauma training with her long-time experience as an elementary teacher to provide healing programs and nature-based therapy in the Charlottesville area. Though she previously specialized in youth programs, she is moving towards more adult-centered work, with the awareness that an adult’s healthy relationship with nature is the first step towards fostering that same connection in children. She offers one-on-one nature-based mindfulness sessions, leads group classes and workshops and works as a consultant with teachers and facilitators of nature-based learning.

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