Why

Despite my best efforts as a certified educator, nature can often be the best teacher. It is through nature that I have learned how to respect all things, even those that I do not understand. It is through nature that I have learned that everything finds a way to work itself out in the end, whether it be a flower growing through the cracks in the concrete or an animal adapting to the changes in the the world. Not only have I been able to learn through my observations of nature, but I have seen first hand the positive impact that nature play can have on the physical, mental and emotional health of young children.

These observations are not just limited to my own experiences. Many doctors, educators and parents have noticed a stark difference in the physical, mental and emotional health of children who are free to explore nature as opposed to those who spent most of their adolescence indoors. In Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods, he describes some of the the benefits he’s observed that are associated with nature play.

  • It builds confidence. The way that kids play in nature has a lot less structure than most types of indoor play. By letting your child choose how they treat nature, they are able to have power and control over their own actions.
  • It promotes creativity and imagination. This unstructured style of play also allows kids to interact meaningfully with their surroundings. They can think more freely, design their own activities and approach the world in inventive ways.
  • It teaches responsibility. Living things die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting a child to take care of the living parts of their environment means they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant or pull a flower out by its roots.
  • It provides different stimulation. Nature may seem less stimulating than a video game, but in reality, it activates more senses — you can see, hear, smell and touch outdoor environments. “As the young spend less and less of their lives in natural surroundings, their senses narrow,” Louv warns, “and this reduces the richness of human experience.”
  • It gets kids moving. Most ways of interacting with nature involve more exercise than sitting on the couch. Your kid doesn’t have to be joining the local soccer team or riding a bike through the park — even a walk will get their blood pumping. Not only is exercise good for kids’ bodies, but it seems to make them more focused, which is especially beneficial for kids with ADHD.
  • It makes them think. Louv says that nature creates a unique sense of wonder for kids that no other environment can provide. The phenomena that occur naturally in backyards and parks everyday make kids ask questions about the earth and the life that it supports.
  • It reduces stress and fatigue. According to the Attention Restoration Theory, urban environments require what’s called directed attention, which forces us to ignore distractions and exhausts our brains. In natural environments, we practice an effortless type of attention known as soft fascination that creates feelings of pleasure, not fatigue.

How

I believe the biggest misconception when it comes to nature play is that there needs to be structure in order for it to be beneficial. Not only does this add unnecessary stress to parents, but it takes the spontaneity and fun out of it for kids. Although, you can do your best to plan an activity, but there should be no specific end goal in mind. It is more important to let your child play, create, experiment and experience. It is through this play that the most important lessons can be learned.

Here are some ideas of what do do:

  • Make a fairy house using naturals materials such as bark
  • Create an Andy Goldsworthy inspired art projects
  • Make your own paints and brushes using plants and berries
  • Go on a scavenger hunt to search for cool, interesting and beautiful things
  • Go kayaking, canoeing or paddle boarding
  • Go on an adventure somewhere new
  • Wade in the river to look for ‘creatures’

Where

Stella Rodriguez is a middle school teacher with New Morning School in Plymouth, MI. She can be reached at stella@newmorningschool.com.