Our guest blogger today is Taylor Hansen is a mother and early childhood educator who has worked in the field of Child & Youth Care for over 10 years. She has a Masters in Child & Youth Study from Mount Saint Vincent University and is passionate about nature-based learning and creative experiences. She is the creator of Experience Childspace Early Learning, a unique ecocentric early learning program based in Herring Cove, currently accepting registrations for September.
Playgrounds are great. They are outdoor spaces created for children that aim to encourage play, being active, and getting outside. All great things for little ones. However, there is a lot that play in the natural environment can provide that traditional playgrounds cannot.
The major shortfall of playgrounds is that they are most often designed by adults for children. It is adults who are making the decisions about what children’s play and play spaces look like, and adults and children often have very different priorities when it comes to play. One of the big results of this is the static nature of many playgrounds, which limits both children’s ability to direct their own play, as well as how far they can take their play.
This is important because play is, after all, the work of children. It is through play that learning occurs, and rich play experiences are key to the growth and development of the whole child. Child-directed play in the natural environment offers children a much richer play experience than adult created spaces ever could. Here are just some of the reasons why:
Development of Gross Motor Skills
The beauty of physical play in nature is that children can create their own gross-motor opportunities based on their specific interests and abilities, some children may feel confident enough to climb trees and jump from large rocks, while others are content balancing along fallen logs or navigating roots and brush.
Healthy Risk Taking
In natural play spaces children are able to navigate risk based on their own desires and comfort levels, building self-confidence and a personal sense of accomplishment. If a child does not feel comfortable climbing a tree for example, there are many other opportunities for them to take risks and overcome challenges. Natural environments also provide more exposure to potential risks, so children develop the skills to better assess them.
Critical Thinking & Problem Solving
Unlike playgrounds, natural environments are not static, they are constantly changing and children will have many opportunities to encounter obstacles, come up with creative solutions, and test them. How do you build a fort using only what you can find around you? You climbed up onto the big rock, now how to get down? Kiddos learn to develop their awareness, reasoning, and observational skills.
The natural environment engages all the senses and is rich in colors, textures, and materials for children to use in creative ways. There is no suggested way to use materials and children can gravitate towards materials that speak to them. An added bonus is that these materials can be collected without doing harm to our planet or bodies.
Encourage Imaginative Play
The natural environment encourages more diverse and non-literal types of imaginative play. Natural materials are loose, open-ended, and can have multiple uses and hold multiple meanings. This encourages children to dream as big as they want and take their imaginations in multiple directions. A stick is a stick that becomes a wand, then a sword, which becomes a new friend, who transforms into a tasty treat.
Instill a Sense of Wonder & Awe
The natural environment has a unique ability to tap into and reinforce children’s already strong sense of wonder. Children see the beauty and good in our world, and we want to nurture this so that they continue to dream and create more of this as they grow and learn.
Building a Relationship with the Natural World
Through play with the natural environment children develop a personal relationship with nature and learn that the natural world is something of immeasurable value to be cared for and protected. Building a relationship with nature and discovering the connection between all living creatures on their own terms increases empathy and compassion.
Children who play regularly in natural settings are sick less often and less stressed. Thank you dirt and sunshine!
The takeaway is this; as much as possible give children unstructured play time in the natural environment, and while there let them take the lead. The benefits of this are huge. Remember it is not our job to have all the answers and to teach them everything we think is important, let them play!