Playing for Keeps: The Vitality of an Ocean Nation At Play

50th Anniversary Sanctuary Signature Articles

By Elizabeth Moore | July 2022

Photo: Having fun along the shores of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary! Image: David J. Ruck/NOAA

A little girl jumps happily on top of rocks beside the ocean
"It is a happy talent to know how to play."1

Tag, hide-and-seek, hopscotch, blind-man's bluff, Marco Polo: how many outdoor games do you remember from your youth? We jumped in ponds in summer and made snow angels in winter, kite flying in the field and ice skating at the rink, tree-climbing and cloud-counting and puddle-stomping our way through childhood. We thought it was all just fun—and it was—but we were also preparing ourselves for maturity, for being healthy, sociable, engaged adults.

Play is ancient; archaeological evidence dating from the Paleolithic Age (from about 2.6 million to 10,000 years ago) and from many cultures includes balls of various materials, game boards and pieces, miniatures that likely served as toys, and depictions of both children and adults at play.2 Play is universal, observed in the young of every society and in many of our primate cousins and other wildlife species, signaling that it has important evolutionary benefits.3 Play is important, with experts now understanding that outside play, including water-based recreation, is crucial for children's development, for our continuing physical, mental, and emotional health as adults, and as a growing segment of our national economy. Read on to learn more about how outside play, and the places where we play, shape us starting in our very earliest years.

A child balances atop a surfing board in shallow water
Practicing balance skills atop the waves of Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary! Image: Bruce Sudweeks, winning entry in the category of Sanctuary Recreation in 2020's Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest.
"In our play we reveal what kind of people we are."4

A young girl flexes her knees and extends her arms on a surfboard atop a gentle swell. She's having a good time in the waves but she's also practicing her balancing skills. Physical learning from play like this helps develop motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and spatial mental mapping.5 Unstructured play allows children to safely experiment, interact with others, think creatively, solve problems, learn about themselves, and develop confidence and independence. Being outdoors additionally helps children engage in more exuberant types of playing and grow strong, healthy bodies.6

Hopping from one rock to another while tidepooling in Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary involves balance and coordination, while reaching down to delicately stroke the spine of an urchin or leg of a starfish develops fine motor skills. Rowing a tandem kayak in Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary involves balance too, of a different kind, and learning to coordinate with a partner. Running along the wave line on a beach of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary teaches the overall sense of a body in motion and judging the arrival of the next wave to leap into helps with spatial understanding and timing.

Two children hold hands as they walk in shallow water
Lending a helping hand in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary! Image: Jerry Loomis, submitted to the Get Into Your Sanctuary Photo Contest in 2020.
"You were once wild here—don't let them tame you!"7

A child reaches out to help her sibling wade through the shallows. Cooperation is only one of several types of cognitive, emotional, and social learning from play that involves gaining problem solving skills, as well as skills related to observation, curiosity, and sensory experiences.5 Experts also point out that free-form play allows children to learn how to behave, socialize, and problem-solve with others, the types of skills that support the peaceful, civil social interactions that are at the heart of a healthy democracy.8 Aquatic exercises have additional specific benefits. Swimming has been shown to reduce anger, tension, and depression in adults9 and lower-impact physical training in water improves the mental and physical health of those who might have trouble with exercising on land. Recreational activities that include immersion in water, one expert points out, have numerous benefits, including lowering blood pressure, reducing the release of stress hormones, increasing blood circulation, and easing pressure on the joints.10

Building sand castles in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary involves judging just how high that sandy tower can go and whether wet or dry sand is best for the courtyard walls. Playing pirates aboard a sailboat in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary teaches social skills in settling disagreements over who gets to be captain and who has to haul the sails. Snorkeling in the shallow waters of Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary encourages children to step outside their comfort zone to explore and appreciate their world in all its forms.

A group of children peer down into a fish tank with small fish in it
Learning about aquatic life in Mallows Bay-Potomac River National Marine Sanctuary! Image: Matt McIntosh/NOAA
"And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair."11

A group of students peer with fascination at an aquarium full of fish. These kinds of spiritual and environmental lessons from play teach children about sustainability, diversity, and change, and grant them a sense of stewardship over our ocean planet.5 Gardens, forests, fields, beaches, and other outside environments provide deep sensory experiences and increase knowledge of the natural world, like the changing seasons, the cycles of life, and the passage of time. Humans particularly find environments with water—the ocean, rivers, lakes, even working waterfronts like canals and ports—highly attractive and more restful than landscapes without the presence of water, and specifically seek out water places for recreation and restoration.12

Going wildlife watching in Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary throughout the year shows a child how winter's migrating gray whales and wintering waterfowl give way to spring and summer's humpback whales and pupping harbor seals, and to autumn's feeding shearwaters and hunting sharks. Observing colorful sea stars, clams, urchins, barnacles, and limpets in the intertidal zones of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary teaches children about the stunning and joyous diversity of life on our ocean planet. Seeing a whale breaching or a sea turtle swimming in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary creates a sense of awe and wonder that can be a life-long gift.

A boy holds a fishing pole with a line in the water
Fishing along the shores of Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale! Image: Matt McIntosh/NOAA
"Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant..."13

A child throws a line out into the ocean in hopes of catching a big fish. He's having fun but the recreational fishing he's enjoying is a lucrative economic activity. Play is big business. The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis said that in 2020, even in the worst of the pandemic, the nation's outdoor recreation economy accounted for almost 2% of our GDP, a value of $374 billion. Water-based recreation like boating and fishing was the most valuable, worth about $30 billion in 2020.14

The pandemic urged more of us outdoors than ever before, the Outdoor Foundation reported late in 2021, with more than half of the U.S. population over the age of six taking part in at least one occasion of outside play. Some of that was no doubt due to the safety factor of being outside but the deep social and emotional difficulties provoked by a global pandemic had many of us seeking the authentic and positive experience that being in nature can provide. 2020 saw nearly 55 million Americans engage in recreational fishing. Bird watching and wildlife viewing were also big draws, with 15 million and 21 million participants each. Other water-based activities continued to be popular: canoeing and kayaking (22 million participants), snorkeling (7.7 million), surfing (3.8 million), stand up paddle boarding (3.7 million), sailing (3.5 million), scuba diving (2.6 million), and windsurfing (1.3 million).15

A group of people do stretches on yoga mats on a beach
Practicing yoga beside Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary! Image: Karlyn Langjahr/NOAA
"We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing."16

A dozen adults ease into a lunge yoga pose, reaching skyward and enjoying a beautiful day beside the ocean. Though some might not consider yoga the same kind of play they enjoyed as children, it still offers similar benefits. In the last several decades, scholars and experts have increasingly noted how important play is for us as adults. Emotionally and socially, we build stronger relations with family, friends, and colleagues when we engage in sports and experiences that foster trust. Taking part in new kinds of recreational activities boosts our creativity, helps us get into that flow state important for innovation, and encourages the neuroplasticity that helps protect our brains as we age. Acquiring new skills or achieving a new benchmark as we play boosts our confidence in other areas of our lives. Having fun at any activity you find enjoyable also has important health benefits by reducing your stress. Sports and outdoor activities also support physical fitness and health, promote better rest and sleep, and increase energy levels.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that healthy adults get at least 150 minutes of activity a week to realize benefits like these, with a mix of moderate and vigorous intensity aerobic, balance, and strengthening exercises. So go ahead! Join nearly four million Americans riding waves, including at these top-notch surf spots in national marine sanctuaries. Become a one-percenter when you are certified to dive, including in these gorgeous sanctuary dive destinations. Be in with the in-crowd of those who love to fish, including in these not-so-secret fishing spots in sanctuaries. Building your life list of invertebrates, birds, and other animals? Check out these amazing sanctuary places for birdwatching and wildlife viewing. Or if you're a history buff, explore the virtual and real-life trails offered by the sanctuary system: the Outer Banks Maritime Heritage Trail, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Trail, or the Florida Keys Shipwreck Trail. Check out even more ways to enjoy sanctuaries so you never have to stop playing!


  1. From: The Journals of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Vol. III, 1833 -1835, edited by Edward Waldo Emerson and Waldo Emerson Forbes, London: Constable and Co. Limited, 1910.
  2. The Importance of Play by David Whitebread, Marisol Basilio, Martina Kuvalja, and Mohini Verma, a report for the Toy Industries of Europe, Brussels,  2012.
  3. "On Becoming Social: The Importance of Collaborative Free Play in Childhood" by Pam Jarvis, Stephen Newman, and Louise Swiniarski in International Journal of Play 3 (1) (2014): 53-68.
  4. From: "The Art of Love" by Ovid, translated by Rolfe Humphries, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957.
  5. "The Role of Play: Play Outdoors as the Medium and Mechanism for Well-Being, Learning, and Development" by Felicity Thomas and Stephanie Harding in Outdoor Provision in the Early Years edited by Jan White, SAGE Books, Los Angeles, 2011.
  6. "The Importance of Outdoor Play for Young Children's Healthy Development" by Gabriela Bento and Gisela Davis in Porto Biomedical Journal 2 (5) (September-October 2017): 157-160. 
  7. From: Isadora Speaks: Uncollected Writings and Speeches of Isadora Duncan edited by Franklin Rosemont, San Francisco: City Light Books, 1981.
  8. "Cooperation Over Coercion: The Importance of Unsupervised Childhood Play for Democracy and Liberalism" by Steven Horwitz in Cosmos + Taxis 3 (1) (June 2015): 3-16
  9. "Mood Alteration with Yoga and Swimming: Aerobic Exercise May Not Be Necessary" by B.G. Berger and D.R. Owen in Perceptual and Motor Skills, 75 (3 Pt 2): 1331–1343.
  10. "Healing Waters" by Bruce Becker in Aquatics International June 2007: 27-32.
  11. From: "On Clothes" from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran, New York: Knopf, 1923.
  12. "The Impact of Blue Space on Human Health and Well-being: Salutogenetic Health Effects of Inland Surface Waters: A Review" by Sebastian Vӧlker and Thomse Kistemann in International Journal of Hygiene and Environmental Health 214 (2011): 449-460.
  13. From: Little Women by Lousia May Alcott, Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1868 and 1869.
  15. 2021 Outdoor Participation Trends Report, Outdoor Industry Association, June 2021.
  16. Variation on a quote from Adolescence: Its Psychology and Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education by G. Stanley Hall, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1904.