Laying the Groundwork for Life:

Outdoor play

By most standards it was a gray and dismal day. Last night’s snow was melting as temperatures rose fast—creating muddy pools and dripping gutters. The playground was half frozen mulch, half icy depressions. Most schools would keep their students inside. However, instead of painting or snuggling up to read books, Bija students were dressed in waterproof boots, hats, and jackets. Many were squealing with utter excitement as they jumped again and again in puddles so large that their jeans were dripping with mud. Others were filling pots and pans with mulch, ice, and rocks in our “mud kitchen” and still more were exploring for roots and worms in the partially frozen raised bed gardens. For Bija children, it was a beautiful day.

A Platform for Learning

When I started working as an educator 15 years ago, creating nature experiences for children was far from my mind. I was always invested in creative, open-ended, play-based education because I understood this as the basis for meaningful learning. Yet the more I think about ways to support children in growing into productive, happy, and kind individuals, the more I realize that time outdoors may be the missing ingredient. Spending unstructured time in nature opens a world of wonder and awe. There are ample opportunities for discovery. Nature experiences, whether in the schoolyard, at a nearby park, or on a camping trip can help kids understand the interconnectedness of our beautiful earth. Outdoor experiences shouldn’t just be reserved for after school hours or weekends with parents. Time in nature is not a luxury; it’s a platform for educating children.

Beauty in nature is diverse and multifaceted. It often takes multiple experiences in the same place, and in various types of weather, to understand just how wonderful the outdoors can be. Left to roam freely outdoors, most kids quickly dive in and begin to notice patterns, create forts, tree houses, or play imaginative games together. They let go of their fears of being dirty and “doing it right” and instead, embrace uncertainty and change. For some this shift is immediate, and for others it may take more time. In general, kids long to climb trees or spend focused minutes observing the amazing things happening an inch below the earth. These desires help the wind and cold melt away on less than perfect days. Children’s literature, toys, and materials are covered with depictions of animals and plants. Often a baby’s earliest sounds are the "bah bah" of a sheep or the "tweet tweet" of a bird. But what about actual experiences in nature? How many kids feel the icy breeze on their face or navigate a forest trail regularly? How many schools opt to turn off the video in the auditorium and send kids out to recess in the snow and rain?

Longer school days, more homework, urbanization, organized sports, and daily access to technology all play a role in children spending less time in nature than ever before. Studies show that children now spend 90% of their leisure time inside and many schools contribute to this trend. We don’t place the proper value on time outside, time without intentional goals or structured expectations. This is robbing our kids of joy and challenge—both such meaningful parts of life.

Outdoor Play
Nature experiences—whether in a park or in the playground—are a missing ingredient in many children's lives.

The Benefits of Nature 

What happens when kids have unstructured time to play and explore outdoors?

  • Problem Solving:

Unlike a structured school day, the routine of home life, organized classes, and sports, there is no telling what one will encounter outside. Whether it is crossing a stream, building a fort, or figuring out how to scale a rock, time in nature helps kids figure stuff out. When kids learn to problem solve in situations that are fun and spontaneous they are able to carry those skills into their schoolwork and daily life.

  • Risk Taking:

Kids need to learn to take risks in order to be able to cope with the world. Life is full of adversity and many children today do not have the skills to manage everyday challenges. Playing outside requires kids to try things that might scare them, but does so in a way that is fun and inviting. How exciting was it the first time you climbed a tree, figured out how to trap minnows, or encountered a wild animal? These situations build self-esteem and foster a willingness to try new things.

  • Increased Creativity:

Children who play outside become naturally curious and creative. Nature is full of open-ended materials. Pine cones become babies, leaves become blankets, and sticks become telescopes. Using imagination and creativity are valuable skills that will guide kids throughout their life.

  • Physical Development:

It’s important for children to use their bodies in experimental ways. Outdoor play in nature inspires and often requires running, kicking, jumping, climbing, and balancing. Coordination and core strength are improved as a result of these activities. When these skills are fostered early on, children are more successful not only in sports, but in academics as well, not to mention they are healthier in mind and spirit.

  • Reduced Mental Health Issues:

Studies show that anxiety, depression, and possibly even ADD are reduced when children spend more time in nature. Children today have less control over their lives than ever before. Since 1955 the school day and school year have continued to get longer and homework has become the norm (sometimes for kids as young as 3!). The more scheduled we make their lives, the more children suffer from depression, anxiety, and attention deficit challenges. Children need freedom to play. They need time to themselves and with peers. It is no surprise that as we have removed these things from kid's lives we have seen a vast increase in psychological problems. Time in nature offers great opportunities to help kids regain some control of their childhood.

  • Learn Empathy:

When children understand the sanctity of life they respect it. Time in nature helps kids understand just how precious life is, and that life truly is all around us. Our world is in crisis and our children are the generation that will be able to stand up and fix it. Appreciating nature is the first step in the process.

 Outdoor Play
Healthier in body, mind, and spirit!

The Role of the Teacher

Where and how do I begin?

Offering children nature experiences doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Teachers can find ways to incorporate nature into everyday activities.

  • ­Bring natural materials into the classroom. Use shells, rocks, seeds, beans, and tree slices for counting, sorting, and dramatic play activities.
  • ­Add fresh or dried flowers to the center of your classroom tables. Herbs such as lavender and rosemary also make excellent natural centerpieces. Have children collect wildflowers on a nature walk and display them around the classroom. A beautiful classroom space enhances learning experiences.
  • Use time outdoors as a “listening experience”. Before heading out of the classroom let students know that you will use your ears to “hear nature”. Discuss what sounds you might hear—birds, crickets, the crunching of leaves underfoot. When you return to the classroom, process what you heard in a discussion or through art-making. Create a classroom book with drawings or photographs of the “sounds of nature” in your local environment.
  • ­Plant something. Even if you don’t have access to your own outdoor space, there are ways to grow things with children. Plant a small herb garden in the classroom window, start some sunflower seeds to take home in plastic baggies, or grow a pot of lettuces to use to create a salad together. If you are really inspired, join a community garden! An added bonus is that kids are more likely to try new foods when they participated in caring of the plants.
  • ­Skip the playground and explore an open green space, a grove of trees, or a hiking trail. Bring a bird book and learn some of the native birds. Take photographs of trees and plants and research their names when you return to school. Modeling an interest in the natural world will help students express their own excitements and discoveries.
  • ­Make art with natural materials. Start by giving students collection bags on a nature walk. This could simply be a walk around your school building or around the block. Resist your desire to limit what children can put in the bag as long as it is natural, safe, and can fit inside. Children are born explorers and you will be amazed what they notice and collect! When you return to school, allow everyone time to observe their own and others findings. Materials can be collaged onto butcher paper or pieces of cardstock or cardboard.

­ Outdoor Play
There are many ways to collect nature. Try this nature bracelet activity.

Finding Joy in Nature

Spending time in nature doesn’t have to be perfect. It may require examining your own assumptions about teaching and your relationship to the great outdoors. Children will watch what you model and notice if bugs, dirt, cold temperatures, or bright sun make you embrace the outdoors or stay inside. What are you interested in exploring? What are your children excited about? Start with the things that move you, collect reference books from the library and bring nature back into the classroom. Each little step will help create connections. This is the real work, the real learning. Finding meaning and joy sets the stage for a lifelong desire to grow, question, and create change. When students become invested, mindful people—and I believe nature experiences lay the groundwork for just that—then we as educators can be proud.

outdoor play
Finding joy in nature sets the stage for a lifelong desire for learning.

Join the conversation (11 comments)
About the Author MaplesLauren

Lauren Maples

Back in 2005 while teaching yoga and dance in public and independent schools, Lauren became interested in why there was such disparity between successful and happy learning environments and those that struggled. Through inquiry and observation, she developed the Bija approach which strives to create a fulfilling and engaging educational experience that’s grounded both in the real world and with an eye towards the future.

Lauren has danced with internationally acclaimed ballet companies including San Francisco Ballet and New York City Ballet and holds a BA from New School University. Lauren is currently completing her Masters in Early Childhood Education at Bank Street College.

 
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  • Bonnie Niehaus

    What a wonderful, insightful article. So many of my memories are connected with outdoor play - my bike was a horse, the sandpile a roadbuilder's dream, especially in the rain or when wet because tunnels were possible. Climbing trees (where I never was injured- I broke my arm on a slide), making forts and tunnels in the snow. Wish the children in our families and school could have like experiences. Are you listening Dept. of Education?

  • Donna

    I am all for the outdoor classrooms. My team however aren't on the same page. Any suggestions on how to help the team enjoy the outdoors too?

  • Charlotte Wood-Wilson

    I so agree. The longer I teach the more importance I place on this. I spent so much of my childhood out of doors. I grew up in Oklahoma and there are very few days that you can not go outside. I went to a country school and we had a morning and afternoon outside time. It was very free and not very supervised. I have gardened with children outside the last 8 years and the benefits are so profound.

  • Julia Berry

    Children often have their first connection to the spiritual world in the outdoors, too. And the Pew Trust's research on adult spirituality found that more than half of the adults they queried (the majority of whom had no particular religious affiliation) said they experienced feelings of awe and connection to the spiritual realm weekly when spending time outdoors. This connection to a greater power or life principle echoes what was said in this terrific article about children developing an appreciation for the sanctity of life. Something this world needs so much more of.

  • Mike Huber

    Couldn't have said it better than this article. I have taken my class to the same neighborhood playground for years. The last two years, we walk right past two playgrounds to a 20 foot hill with some surrounding trees. I find the children are more engaged, and have less conflicts. Some kids are sitting looking at dandelions while others are rolling down the hill or sitting under a pine-tree rocket ship.

  • marcy johnson

    I found this article about outside play very exciting. I would love to have a space where the children could plant a vegetable garden, and take some home each week. My children also enjoy exploring bugs and I try to encourage being gentle to them--after all, they are living things.

  • Janet

    I have those wonderful memories too! I practically spent my childhood in the trees and on the roof of our house, and no I never broke anything! I think we need to push to find ways to give our children at least some of what we had. They deserve it! Let's start small and like a cartoon snowball, we will roll this idea bigger!

  • Mary Russell

    Fantastic piece. Add David Sobel's new book, "Forest kindergartens and Nature Preschools" to your must-read book list. Start them playing as a school model young! Antioch University New England has a Nature Preschool Certification program. The U.K. Does too.

  • Mary Ann Biermeier

    Nature walks have become a part of the curriculum. We found that our explorations bring the outdoors back inside. We plan for this by providing small bags, magnifying glasses and bug boxes. Children collect rocks, flowers, sticks and an occasional small creature. All of these found treasures make their way back into the classroom to be used in scientific investigations or representational art. Children love to talk about and draw pictures, remembering their outdoor experiences.

  • Rhonda Sharp

    I remember when I was growing up we would go to school and spend time outside for recess then when we got home our are parent s would spend us outside until dinner time and after dinner we would come in just before the lights came on. We did things as a group in the neighborhood and solve our own problems with each other without adult being involved. We were unsupervised but we did not get into trouble.

  • Darlene Langseth

    Excellent article. It makes me want to be a kid again. Would love to use some of these ideas in our program.

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View Comments 11
Close

Comments (11)

Leave a Comment
  • Bonnie Niehaus

    What a wonderful, insightful article. So many of my memories are connected with outdoor play - my bike was a horse, the sandpile a roadbuilder's dream, especially in the rain or when wet because tunnels were possible. Climbing trees (where I never was injured- I broke my arm on a slide), making forts and tunnels in the snow. Wish the children in our families and school could have like experiences. Are you listening Dept. of Education?

  • Donna

    I am all for the outdoor classrooms. My team however aren't on the same page. Any suggestions on how to help the team enjoy the outdoors too?

  • Charlotte Wood-Wilson

    I so agree. The longer I teach the more importance I place on this. I spent so much of my childhood out of doors. I grew up in Oklahoma and there are very few days that you can not go outside. I went to a country school and we had a morning and afternoon outside time. It was very free and not very supervised. I have gardened with children outside the last 8 years and the benefits are so profound.

  • Julia Berry

    Children often have their first connection to the spiritual world in the outdoors, too. And the Pew Trust's research on adult spirituality found that more than half of the adults they queried (the majority of whom had no particular religious affiliation) said they experienced feelings of awe and connection to the spiritual realm weekly when spending time outdoors. This connection to a greater power or life principle echoes what was said in this terrific article about children developing an appreciation for the sanctity of life. Something this world needs so much more of.

  • Mike Huber

    Couldn't have said it better than this article. I have taken my class to the same neighborhood playground for years. The last two years, we walk right past two playgrounds to a 20 foot hill with some surrounding trees. I find the children are more engaged, and have less conflicts. Some kids are sitting looking at dandelions while others are rolling down the hill or sitting under a pine-tree rocket ship.

  • marcy johnson

    I found this article about outside play very exciting. I would love to have a space where the children could plant a vegetable garden, and take some home each week. My children also enjoy exploring bugs and I try to encourage being gentle to them--after all, they are living things.

  • Janet

    I have those wonderful memories too! I practically spent my childhood in the trees and on the roof of our house, and no I never broke anything! I think we need to push to find ways to give our children at least some of what we had. They deserve it! Let's start small and like a cartoon snowball, we will roll this idea bigger!

  • Mary Russell

    Fantastic piece. Add David Sobel's new book, "Forest kindergartens and Nature Preschools" to your must-read book list. Start them playing as a school model young! Antioch University New England has a Nature Preschool Certification program. The U.K. Does too.

  • Mary Ann Biermeier

    Nature walks have become a part of the curriculum. We found that our explorations bring the outdoors back inside. We plan for this by providing small bags, magnifying glasses and bug boxes. Children collect rocks, flowers, sticks and an occasional small creature. All of these found treasures make their way back into the classroom to be used in scientific investigations or representational art. Children love to talk about and draw pictures, remembering their outdoor experiences.

  • Rhonda Sharp

    I remember when I was growing up we would go to school and spend time outside for recess then when we got home our are parent s would spend us outside until dinner time and after dinner we would come in just before the lights came on. We did things as a group in the neighborhood and solve our own problems with each other without adult being involved. We were unsupervised but we did not get into trouble.

  • Darlene Langseth

    Excellent article. It makes me want to be a kid again. Would love to use some of these ideas in our program.

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