The old ship’s bell rang out across the landscape. “Clang! Clang! Clang” The sound echoed around the neighborhood that I grew up in and it was the signal to come home. Most people where I grew up had a signal to call the kids home. My family had a ship’s bell. Another neighbor had a larger, deeper bell that sounded different enough that we were never confused. Other neighbors used a variety of whistles or, to my knowledge, trusted that their kids would wander home eventually.

Play was a central part of my life as a child. There were pick up kickball games, crazy plays that were put together on people’s porches, imaginary tag games that were created in the yard, and days filled with biking, sledding, or creating mazes in the field behind the house.

Play is simply what we did as children, and it was what was expected. There were also times of hard work: mowing lawns, raking leaves, gardening, pruning, and such, but play was a central part of childhood in a way that is being lost today.

Many children spend much of their time in day care, where there are organized activities, learning, and structure. There isn’t anything wrong with that, and day care providers work hard, but something seems to be lost when there is less free play and more supervised time.

Playing is learning. That is not always something that people think about, but it is important enough to repeat: play is learning.

It is during play that people learn a lot of the skills they need in life. Children learn how to cooperate and share things, as well as how to deal with conflict and people not wanting to play the same thing as they do. How do you deal with conflict? Do you run away from it? Talk about it? Compromise? These are all skills that people start to develop in childhood while they are playing.

Play is also where a lot of other skills are developed. Children learn where their limits are and what their capabilities are through play. I recall once, long ago, watching a little girl on a field trip to Celeron Park. She grabbed hold of the bars that form a path, where children swing from bar to bar like a monkey. Instead of using them like a monkey, she swung her legs up, hooked them around a bar and pulled herself up so she could crawl on top of the bars.

I looked at the teacher and raised my eyebrows, questioning whether this was an acceptable thing to do. She simply shrugged and said “If she didn’t think she could do it, she wouldn’t be up there.”

Discovering your abilities is part of what childhood is about. Some kids are great climbers. Others are great runners. Some have great imaginations and inspire other children to play in creative worlds that they make together, while other children are leaders that are great at coordinating large group play. Some kids are great at building things or tearing things apart and making new things.

It seems like the art and freedom of play is disappearing. Children are involved in more and more organized activities led by adults. This can interfere with their natural learning about conflict resolution, leadership, creativity, and more.

Play is important and, as a nature educator, I have to say that nature play is super important. There are possibilities to challenge, create, and lead outside that are simply less available indoors.

Audubon has eight weeks of summer day camp and started offering play camps a few years ago. They have become one of my favorite camps to be a part of. The children gather and decide the day. They create, play, and lead the things they love. Along the way, they come up with their own experiments.

“How much does a mushroom grow in a day?” one girl asked. My reply: “I don’t know, how could we figure it out?” She marked a stick and put it next to the mushroom to see how much it would grow. Along the way, they built shelters, had wars, built bridges over the mud, and created their own mini society full of its own rules. They painted themselves with mud and had mud wars, but there were two children who couldn’t get muddy or they would get in trouble, so they had a different game. The rules for all of it were more complicated than I understood, but every child understood the rules of the group and where they fit in. For me, that was a big part of the goal: fun, structured by children, with me facilitating if things needed guidance.

Deep down, I wish we could just send a group out for the day and ring a bell to call them in at lunch and at the end of the day. Since that may not work in today’s world, getting them out in a group to play is the next best thing.

Audubon has everything you need to inspire a child to play. There is an outdoor nature play area with a giant cement turtle and salamander, shelter, sandbox, stumps to jump on, and logs to crawl on and through. There is an inside nature play area too, with fake critters to catch, a fire to cook over, and more.

Bring your children down to exercise their bodies and minds. Bring a friend, a book, or some knitting, and let your child play. (Just interfere if they start to destroy something.) And take comfort in that they are learning an awful lot while you sit there and watch.

Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk as is Liberty, the Bald Eagle. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at or by calling (716) 569-2345.