If you have ever wondered about the real value of some good ole’ fashioned fresh air and outdoor time, then I would suggest you watch children as they bury their nose in some wildflowers, find an unusual alien-like insect in the woods, or happily splash around in a creek. As children explore their outdoor environment, they experience that special kind of pleasurable satisfaction nature provides that many adults remember feeling as children, and, as their parents did before them. A sunny summer afternoon running through the garden sprinkler or winter weekend spent playing hockey on a frozen lake are wonderful Canadian traditions, happily experienced and always fondly remembered.
When Playing Outside Can Seem Like a Daunting Task
However, the stress and effort of preparing young preschoolers for outdoor play, especially in colder seasons (… oh, you know… the coats, the assorted cold weather accessories, the piles of shoes and boots, the lineups at the bathroom…), can oftentimes feel a tad overwhelming. And that’s not all teachers have to worry about. What about the risk of injury? Insect stings? Mud puddle mishaps? Or possible zombie apocalypse?! Dear lord, the list just never ends.
Outdoor Play versus Nature Play: Is One Really Better?
Nature play is not just simply playing somewhere outside. It is actually more of a child-directed and child-initiated form of play in a natural space, such as an overgrown field, patch of woods, or the unmaintained areas of a neighborhood, and offers a great many benefits. Check out these following four benefits that nature play has to offer your childcare center.
Nature Play Benefit #1: Healthier Kids
Imagine a child running through a small patch of woods where trees have magically transformed into hiding places, upturned roots into forts, and fallen branches into jungle gyms. Now, compare the imaginative possibilities a child has in these woods to the possibilities provided by a swing or a slide in a playground. In both these instances there is a chance for physical activity, yet, undoubtedly, the woods do offer more options. This malleable and flexible aspect of nature is referred to by researchers as the ‘affordance’ of nature, and it is this affordance that offers substantial benefits to physical and motor skill development in small children.
Nature Play Benefit #2: Sharpened Intelligence
The variety provided by nature both stimulates and develops a child’s body physically, all the while offering an added boost to their brain development. When children are engaged in dynamic and varied outdoor play, they encounter ample opportunities for decision making. These circumstances, in turn, stimulate creative thinking and problem-solving in situations that are not typically found in a playground or static indoor environment.
Nature Play Benefit #3: Stress Relief and Social Bonding
Have you ever felt more relaxed after a walk along the lake or a hike in the woods? Most probably, the answer to that question is a loud YES! Well, it’s the same for kids. An added bonus to feeling relaxed is that time spent in nature often strengthens social bonds between children. Unstructured time inherent in play activities allows for the social interactions deemed to be crucial building blocks of emotional intelligence. When play time takes place in nature, kids have substantially increased possibilities for problem-solving, sharing, negotiating, and working together. So, you see, nature works as a facilitator of sorts for significant childhood social interactions.
Nature Play Benefit #4: Nurturing Care for Our Planet
As a general consensus, the scientific community believes that Earth will face tremendous environmental challenges in the upcoming years. Thus, in order to overcome these challenges, we will be in need of people who not only understand the Earth but who also have come to truly appreciate and care for it. Therefore, naturally (no pun intended!), research shows that nature play is a crucial stepping stone for developing these types of individuals. When children spend time in direct contact with the environment, through nature play, they can have the positive experiences that may, in fact, precondition them to care about nature and the world later on in life.