Into the Great Outdoors: Summer's Child


By Erin Marteal

Summer is the time of year when outdoor living reaches its fullest potential, with the last day of school a distant memory and days the longest they will be all year. It is easier to wake up at daybreak and bedtime gets pushed later each night.

So, what to do with the long, rolling, boundless days of summer?

There’s only one appropriate answer here, and while it happens to be a 4-letter word, it is becoming less offensive with every news report that validates its life-improving merit: The word is PLAY.

Recently, Ithaca Children’s Garden was honored by the American Public Gardens Association with the prestigious 2017 Program Excellence Award – specifically for ICG’s unique Hands-on-Nature Anarchy Zone and focus on nature-based play. Countless initiatives across fields of public health, mental and physical well-being, literacy, healthy child development, and education are blossoming under the play renaissance. Play is not a dirty word nor does it take away precious time for studies. It IS precious time for studies, in the most child-respecting, life-affirming, meaningful way possible.

There is a season that is peak for work and study, and July and August, no matter how studious the student, is not it. This in no way implies that summer is not a season of learning. For young children, summer can be the time of richest learning, when the days roll on like rhythmic, reggae beats and unscheduled time yields learning about self: Burgeoning potential, confidence, self concept. All these major discoveries can only take place within the framework of how we understand our place in the world – the world around us, the world we are part of, the world we are connected to. Sometime this pathway – meandering through the summer child’s day – makes a brief pit stop at boredom, which is basically a free invention incubator. A brief stop at Boredom Station is plenty sufficient to propel the young visitor to make a new game, a new adventure, or define a new challenge to be solved while simultaneously rolling out the solution.

So, how do we make the most of the fleeting Ithaca summer? To find the best answers, I turned to Ithaca Children’s Garden staff, adults ranging in age from 21 to 40-plus. Whether college intern or senior staff member, each of these individuals has devoted a significant portion of their career to environmental preservation and nature-based education. The question I posed was: “What was your favorite thing to do as a child during summer days?”

Here’s the abridged version of what was shared:

-- Playing in mud pits; scouting for crayfish, salamanders, and frogs. Building forts out of leaves and sticks, and trying to be self-sufficient. We would only come home for food. We had lots of acorn wars; sumac fruits make great bombs! (Abigail)

-- Playing in the rain and splashing through puddles (Bailee)

-- Climbing trees and reading outside, as well as all kinds of outdoor sports like tennis. (Andrew) (Admittedly, there was a healthy dose of video game time to balance out the outside time.)

-- Sleeping outside, being barefoot and gardening with my mom. Snapping peas. (Elaine)

-- Building forts. We would stack pine boughs and make whole villages out of trees and other things we found in the woods. It was awesome! (Jean)

-- Hiking with family. I would sprint to get way ahead on a hiking trail and get an up high view while waiting for my family to catch up with me. I remember how impressive the up high view was, how different it was from my day-to-day child’s perspective. (Sheehan)

-- Riding my bike around the block and playing with the neighborhood kids. (Lauren)

-- Building a lot of dams and flooding the creeks as much as possible. We spent so much time reworking the waterways. There were lots of dams. (Merlin)

-- Playing in the sewers. We would enter at the wide mouth at the creek and climb in until the tunnel shrunk so small that we would have to inch along on our bellies in the complete blackness, always imagining rats were nipping at our toes. When we got too big to crawl we would bring skateboards in and lay flat on our bellies to roll through the sewers. It was terrifying but we did it many times every summer until we progressed all the way to the manhole that came up by my house. (This Author)

The ways you can play outdoors are limited only by your child’s imagination and the access they have to the outdoors. It’s really not about planning what they’ll do. In fact, it’s important to leave time when you don’t. It’s about removing obstacles so they may experience the unbridled freedom of connecting with their world, on their terms, in their own time. If we want not only healthy children but critical thinkers, competent leaders, and ground-breaking scientists, then we must LET THE CHILDREN PLAY.

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Erin Marteal has served Ithaca Children’s Garden as its executive director since 2011. She can be reached at


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