Taking Early Learning Outside: Nature Play in Preschools
In many countries play has moved indoors during the last two decades. It makes me feel old to say “when I was a kid things were different” but life has definitely changed. As a primary school teacher it means stopping kids from climbing trees and watching as play equipment like monkey bars are removed from playgrounds for fear of being too dangerous. It’s easy to see how the rise of risk adverse play spaces is changing the way we teach and the way kids learn.
There is concern in the US that outdoor play in primary schools has been reduced due to the focus on of Common Core testing. One writer even goes so far as to describe it as the ‘death of recess’. There’s no doubt that reducing play at school is causing an imbalance that sees reports of American children (ages 3-12) spending less than one percent of their time outdoors.
However, many preschools in the US and around the world are changing the inside/outside ratios.. Although the tradition of nature preschools is an established one in Scandinavian countries like Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the philosophy of “returning to nature” is growing. Recently, videos and articles featuring new nature schools seem to pop up online on a weekly basis. At these schools and preschools, children are being taken outside to learn, by educators who feel that a connection to nature has benefits for social, emotional and knowledge development of all children from 0-5. At some of these ‘forest’ preschools children are outside all day, whatever the weather - stomping in puddles, playing in snow, climbing trees and hunting for eels. Some schools don’t have an ‘indoors’ even in cold climate countries!
Many of these schools take inspiration from the writing of Richard Louv, the founder of the child and nature network. He believes that children living in urban environments are suffering from a nature “deficit” which needs to be addressed for future mental and physical health. Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods explores the need for children to be reintroduced to nature. His view is not only that “nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding... a full use of the senses” but also that “whatever shape nature takes it offers children an older, larger world separate from parents”. He explains that "it isn't about going back to nature, but forward" with it.
So what are some of the many benefits of nature play?
Scaffolding a child’s sense of self - their independence, interdependence and connectedness with the natural world.
Manipulating loose parts and sensory learning experiences
Risky play – supported risk to challenge and promote understanding of risk taking
Social skills – play is often social and children are turn- taking, sharing, negotiating and working out leadership roles.
Fostering creativity, imaginative and symbolic play.
But what about the risk?
Aren’t there dangers for children being allowed to play with sharp sticks, climb trees and lift logs - and maybe fall, injure themselves and/or get dirty?
At Grove Kindergarten in South Australia, children are encouraged to explore risk and challenge as part of play. Director, Sally Grove describes how their playground design is “used to foster and nurture nature play to its best capacity”. Their playground includes:
Logs (for lifting to find bugs)
Gardens - native/food
Children at Grove are involved in daily risk assessments, in a program designed to support them as capable and confident learners. Listening to Sally and the children talking about “learning injuries” demonstrates how involving the children gives them language and understanding of what can happen in their environment.
As for getting dirty - there is proof that playing in mud is good for kids. At Open Spaces Preschool in Whangarei, New Zealand, children are encouraged to enjoy playing in mud and are simply hosed off and dressed in dry clothes when play is done.
At Open Spaces the curriculum is built around the natural environment to provide children with:
Space and time to just “be”.
Active support of free play – responsive teaching when opportunity arises.
and intentional provocations balanced with child-initiated inquiry such as nature walks, conservation work and the use of tools to investigate and represent things.
The range of learning experiences available in the outdoors create positive emotional memories that children can carry forward in life. In Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland identifies 5 ways that outdoor learning improves well-being, including children being “self directed creative learner[s]”.
If children are made aware but not scared of risks they learn to assess situations and try things out.
There’s a phrase attributed to Maria Montessori that is often quoted in articles on early learning - “play is the work of the child”. Well, in the world of forest schools and nature play - the natural environment provides a ‘workplace’ for the child. A workplace where imagination and creativity meet sky and trees and where risk is just part of the play.
The documentary below is well worth watching for an overview on Forest Kindergartens
- Kids Gone Wild: Denmark's Forest Kindergartens
Rethinking outdoor learning environments- NQS Australia
Natural Start Alliance - USA
What are your experiences with nature play? Share your thoughts, ideas and resources in the comments. We'll keep adding to the resources list!