The Importance of Nature Play in Early Childhood Settings

By Natasha Kocher, RECE & Ryan Hasbury
originally published in The Holistic Parent Magazine in August 2018

The forest is alive with laughter and joyful little voices as the children make their way down the path and into the trees. Huge logs quickly become balance beams and climbing structures to the imaginative explorers. Shoes are discarded, tossed with haphazard enthusiasm, to feel the squishy mud between their toes.

“Look a bug! He’s huge!” cries an excited preschooler. “I wonder where he lives?”

There are always new opportunities for wonder in this magical place.

A toddler nearby has discovered a stick that is perfect for scratching marks into the earth while another child lines up smooth stones from largest to smallest at the serene edge of a stream.

An infant, the youngest of the group, babbles happily as he freely explores leaves and twigs on the forest floor with chubby baby fingers. Tummy time at its finest!

Mark making, early math skills and literacy skills, observation, experimentation, risk taking and messy play; there are so many learning opportunities in this natural space.

This is a snapshot of nature based education.

Play in nature is truly one of the best ways for children to learn. It is unhurried and messy and sparks the imagination because there are so many materials freely accessible to use.

When contrasted with the asphalt playgrounds of some schools and childcare facilities, play in green, natural spaces is more engaging and exciting because it is always different. Even if you return to the same physical location or just use an unmanicured green space in your play yard, the changes with the seasons and weather can make it feel like a new place.

In the forest or any other natural space you have to rediscover the landscape with each visit. The children must build a relationship with these places, taking time to learn their nooks and secret spaces, and there are always new discoveries to be made.

With this in mind, many early learning programs are beginning to embrace nature play as an important element in their curriculum and this choice has had huge benefits for children.

“Children are happier and healthier! They have less stress. They learn to manage risk. They have opportunities for adventure! They are fitter and leaner. They have better eyesight,” says Diane Kashin Ed.D, RECE, author and nature play advocate. “Childhood is increasingly becoming an indoor culture. Never before in history has this been the case. The implications are scary.”

Kashin adds, “Children need to learn to love nature so that they can take care of it – they need to become stewards of the environment. It is important to them and it is important to us and it is important to the planet. Teachers can be leaders to reverse this trend.”

As educators in early learning and care we must advocate for nature play. We must become enthusiastic explorers, eager co-learners, wondering and discovering and playing with our students.

Don’t shrink away from spiders, don’t shy away from mud, and most importantly don’t say no when you can say yes!

Yes, you can splash in the puddle!

Yes, you can play in the mud!

Yes, you can search for fairies among the mushrooms and flowers!

Richard Louv, author of  Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, writes “We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole.”

Teach the children in your care to find beauty in the warty old toad and to bask in the welcoming shade of ancient trees, to follow their wonder wherever it leads them, take risks and learn with hearts filled to the brim with joy.

As our time in the forest draws to a close I watch my young students splashing in the stream, clothes dripping and damp, smiles wide and eyes bright, and I hope that I have given a glimpse of the splendor all around us. The splendor that they are an important part of.

I hope that I have taught them to love the little creatures, to care for the little plants and for each other.

I hope that one day they will be the stewards of the environment, driven in part by the memories of this special place.

We gather our things and slowly begin our journey back home. No one is ever eager to leave the forest, but naptime is calling us and everyone is ready for a rest.

Well, almost everyone.

A preschooler who never seems to tire dashes ahead of the group as we make our way down the path. They’ve found a stick-sword to slay a fallen tree that they’ve imagined in to a fearsome dragon.

One last adventure before we return to sleep at our little school.

“Can we come back again soon?” a very sleepy child asks, rubbing their eyes with dirt smudged fists.

Of course we can.