The Spirituality of Playing in Nature

 

Photo: Pixabay

I love the image of a child bursting out of the house ready to play outside. It speaks to me of a joyful romp outdoors… and the great challenge this presents us.

Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods has gotten a lot of people talking about “nature deficit disorder,” the psychological impact on children who spend little time in nature. Many of us adults suffer, I think, from a “play deficit disorder.” We live in a world of responsibility and, all too often, difficult circumstances. Yet, the Christian faith, at least, tells us that if were want to enter the kingdom of heaven, we need to be like little children.

I think the two disorders are linked. Psychologists increasingly are telling us that going outside, even just to a park, has positive physical, psychological, and emotional benefits. Just being outdoors heals us and invigorates us. Nature has a way of clearing our mind and settling our emotions, of helping us see clearly who we are in the scheme of things. It helps us let go of things that disturb us or keep us from focusing on things that truly matter. Psychologists say it has a restorative effect.

Little children who grow up spending time outside often dash out of the house and then run around the yard, dig in the dirt, and turn over rocks in the creek to see what’s underneath. They fully engage everything they see with joy and expectation. They live life to the fullest, not worrying about what they should do and when, what they are supposed to do when they are outside, and whether or not they will earn points by doing this or that. They play… and they have fun. Remember that word?

I enjoy doing lots of things. But I have to admit that despite that, I don’t do many things for no other reason than to have fun. I do them rather because I’ll be healthier, more fulfilled, or maybe a bit more mature spiritually. I even tend to take playing music seriously. How do I make the most of that phrase? Am I getting the feel of the tune? Although music feeds my soul and leads me beyond myself, more often than not I don’t gleefully pick up the banjo or guitar and play with total abandon.

I suspect the link between having fun and being outside has to do with the idea of the Sabbath. Academics take sabbaticals every seven years to rejuvenate themselves and to explore new avenues in their fields. I personally can tell you that these sabbaticals truly make a difference personally and professionally. During a sabbatical ideally one lets go of many responsibilities in order to make room for growth. That’s the idea of the Sabbath, the one day in the seven-day week where God invites us to let go of life’s “have-to’s” and to recoup. Sabbaths remind us that ultimately we’re not in control and that we can trust God to keep the world running while we check out for a day. Sabbaths remind us that, amazingly, the world won’t fall apart if we aren’t on top of things every second of our lives. They restore us. They give us permission to play. Imagine what Sabbaths spent outside might do.

 

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Yet, nature isn’t always restorative. Playing outside can prove problematic. I remember getting turned around once while I was exploring in Lost Cove. It was getting late, the terrain was rough, and I realized that I soon could be in a difficult situation. As adults who have learned about life the hard way, we know that nature, and people, have a way of turning around and biting us. So, if we’re not careful, we close ourselves up and enter life defensively, maybe even cynically.

Here’s one of the many paradoxes of the spiritual life: We’re called to be totally open to everything around us, to joyfully burst out of the house each day to explore the world despite its ticks, global warming, and social unrest. Playing requires courage. Parents send their children out to play while keeping a watchful eye on them. Children, though, are blissfully unaware of the dangers around them. They do wholeheartedly believe, however, that their parents will make everything better should they get hurt. God sends us out to play, too, asking us to trust in him despite the dangers that we both know we’ll encounter. He asks us to trust that “Daddy” (or “Mommy”) will make everything better should life bite us. It takes courage to trust someone you can’t see. Paradoxically, when we do that, that’s when we come alive.

In order to grow spiritually we’re called to burst out of the house each day with infectious joy, exploring the human and natural worlds with curiosity despite its ticks, global warming, and social unrest. We’re called to enter life wide-eyed with eyes wide open. Having fun in a world like this challenges us to let go of the burden of carrying the world on our shoulders, believing somehow that God is in control and will make everything alright if we get bitten.

God calls us to take time off to go play in the creek. Who knows? Doing so just might make everything a little bit better.

Certificate in Contemplation and Creation Care
Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South

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Author: Robert "Robin" Gottfried

Director, Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South, and Professor Emeritus of Economics at Sewanee. Contemplative Christian, musician, blogger for the Huffington Post on religion and environment, and hiker living on the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.

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