10 Impactful Benefits of Nature Play
Written by HiMama and shared with Atelier Kids
Playing in nature is good for our body, mind, and soul! Providing ourselves and our children with opportunities to be in nature is unlike any other experience. Being in nature may mean something different for each household. Some families may love to go hiking on a trail, other families may prefer to go to a playground at a park, and other families may prefer the opportunities provided by playing on an open field. Let’s explore and experience the possibilities together! “Nature play” is highly engaging and easily controlled by the child! Nature is inclusive and accessible and children can decide ‘how’ and ‘what’ they want to play outside, there’s no wrong way to play! It can help children self-regulate by managing their own behaviour, too!
1.Opportunities to Explore
We can explore trees, leaves, acorns, flowers, rocks, sticks, paths, sand or dirt, animals, birds, insects, clouds, and so much more! If a child is in nature and does not know what to explore first or how to explore, it is helpful to point out two or three categories of things in nature and allow them to choose. Should we go on a scavenger hunt for flowers, like a scientist (or even a botanist)? Be like an archaeologist and find some shiny rocks? Or, should we be detectives and find different types of animals and follow their tracks? Visiting the same places can provide a different experience each time. And, visiting new places and trying out the same activities can also have its benefits! Perhaps, one time you are counting maple trees and another time you are on the search for shiny rocks. Perhaps, you remember how many maple trees you saw at the last park and you compare it to the number of maple trees you see at the park or on your nature walk today. These experiences build awareness and familiarity.
2.Opportunities to Lead Play
Through the practice of following the child, we are able to observe the ways that children prefer to play. We can learn to let them take the lead and also fill a different type of role for our children, as they learn how to play, imagine, and explore. “Play is fundamentally important for learning 21st century skills, such as problem solving, collaboration, and creativity, which require the executive functioning skills that are critical for adult success.”
1 (M. Yogman, et al) Opportunities for small role reversals allow the child to develop preliminary leadership skills, even from a very young age, even 18 months or two years! It is true, “…play usually enhances curiosity, which facilitates memory and learning.”1 (M. Yogman, et al) The Power of Play: A Pediatric Role in Enhancing Development in Young Children 1Michael Yogman, Andrew Garner, Jeffrey Hutchinson, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff, COMMITTEE ON PSYCHOSOCIAL ASPECTS OF CHILD AND FAMILY HEALTH and COUNCIL ON COMMUNICATIONS AND MEDIA Pediatrics September 2018, 142 (3) e20182058; DOI: https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2018-2058
Observing the predictable allows children to draw conclusions and begin to categorize information about their natural surroundings. For example, if a squirrel is sitting and enjoying an acorn, but we approach the squirrel loudly, the squirrel will run away. Through repeated experiences in similar situations, the child will be able to begin drawing conclusions about what a squirrel, or a bird, or another creature might do if approach loudly versus quietly. It’s also valuable to point out and recognize the unpredictable: such as: which way is the wind blowing today? How can we tell? Or, I see that squirrel running, where is it going? By drawing attention to these scenarios by using a question that is open ended, it encourages the child to think! It’s also OK not to have the answers and just practice thinking about the possibilities and brainstorming potential answers.
4.Freedom of Movement
When a child is able to move their body, arms, legs free of most any limitation, they are moving their body displaying freedom of movement. Imagine going to a park field and allowing your child to safely run free! Allowing the child to run until their body feels like stopping, a very freeing experience and invigorating, too; this is the unbroken run! Larger movements are easier to do and could be something as simple as dinosaur steps, elephant stomps, or even a relay race involving hopscotch, big frog leaps or jumping jacks. Louder voices are more acceptable and even welcomed! Think of it this way: “When we are inside, we use a smaller voice, but now that we are outside, we can use a BIGGER voice!” Providing opportunities for your child to move their body freely in a space that is safe has a magical way of providing a sense of freedom they may rarely experience.
5.Learn Own Limits Leads to Less Need for Correction
We test our own limits by practicing movements, such as: jumping, climbing, running, hopping, and even dancing. Opportunities for self-correction occur when the child is working on developing new skills, so they practice the same type of movements. If the child tried jumping a distance, but it didn’t work the way the child wanted the first time, they can try again! Regarding climbing, if the child is working on climbing a tree and one branch did not work well the first time, they might choose a different branch the next time. And, running, if the child was out of breath after running a distance last time, then they may consider running at a different speed or running a different length next time. Natural consequences occur in situation like, jumping too high and falling down upon landing, climbing to a height and not knowing how to get down, or running and feeling “out of breath.” When we set children up for success, the instances where correction is required will decrease. This may be considered freedom within limits. As adults, we provide the framework and the general expectation(s), but the rest is open ended. For example, today we will play on this field with these three differently sized balls (soccer ball, football, and a softball) and our feet will remain on the grass. If needed, you may add: some balls are 4 feet and others are for our hands. Balls should not be thrown at peoples’ heads. Thereafter, no further instruction should need to be given.
What type of energy is needed to toss a ball a short distance vs. throwing a ball far or really far. One of the most important skills for physical development, besides crossing midline is hand-eye coordination. This is the bodies‘ ability to coordinate in order to complete such tasks as catching and throwing a ball. By practicing large muscle control-based activities, children develop gross motor skills. As a child practices experiences involving these skills, they begin to refine their skills.
7.Encourage Problem Solving
Asking questions that start with the word “what” or “how” will encourage the child to try and figure our potential answers or solutions, rather than asking other tries if questions.
8.Opportunities for Connection
Participating in “low stress” activities together has a special way of allowing the adult and child to have a shared experience. “One study documented that positive parenting activities, such as playing and shared reading, result in decreases in parental experiences of stress and enhancement in the parent–child relationship, and these effects mediate relations between the activities and social–emotional development.”(2) Through the act of providing meaningful experiences that do not involve much correction, recognize the child and increasing abilities, and being present all contribute towards building your relationship.
(2) Cates CB, Weisleder A, Dreyer BP, et al. Leveraging healthcare to promote responsive parenting: impacts of the Video Interaction Project on parenting stress. J Child Fam Stud. 2016;25(3):827–835pmid:27134514
9.Speak to the Senses
Through a variety of experiences, children are able to develop a sense of their place in the world. When playing outdoors children are using multiple senses activating your proprioception, your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location.
Feel – Is this leaf smooth or rough? How about this rock? Smooth or rough?
Hear – Do you hear the birds? Where is that sound coming from?
See – I see those clouds. Are the clouds moving slowly or quickly today? If you could pretend to see something in the shape of the clouds, what do you see?
Smell – I smell some flowers, which flowers do you smell? Can you find them?
Taste – This farm has a variety of things we can taste. Would you like to try this apple or that peach? Is it sweet or sour?
10.Helps Build a Strong Immune System
Components in nature, such as exposure to natural components like allergens, dirt, and sand can activate the bodies antibodies; which help build the immune system. “Most of us sense that taking a walk in a forest is good for us. We take a break from the rush of our daily lives. We enjoy the beauty and peace of being in a natural setting. Now, research is showing that visiting a forest has real, quantifiable health benefits, both mental and physical. Even five minutes around trees or in green spaces may improve health. Think of it as a prescription with no negative side effects that’s also free.” 3 Through exposure to the elements, children gain body awareness and begin to identify “I’m warm, I’m cold, etc.,” as related to the heat of the sun, the feeling of the sand on their feet, the sensation of snow falling on their tongue or a cold handful of freshly fallen snow in their hand.
Some of the best parts about playing in nature are that activities are easily controlled by the child. These experiences provide wonderful opportunities for inclusiveness and are often easily accessible. This wide variety of experiences speak to the senses, promote real moments for self-regulation, and help build a strong immune system. Nature has so much to offer, if we choose to see it! Our children are always looking for things to see, do, and explore. Nature can speak to them, provide moments of calmness and encourage joy! How will you start exploring?
About the Author:
Ria Simon is a Registered Early Childhood Educator and Community Ambassador at HiMama. HiMama aims to improve the learning outcomes of children aged 0-5 and provides free resources to educators and families. HiMama’s childcare app facilitates open communication with families and enables contactless operation of your centre, from documentation to payments.Want to learn more about HiMama and view their resources for families? Visit their blog!