“There must be provision for the child to have contact with nature; to understand and appreciate the order, the harmony and the beauty in nature”. Maria Montessori
Nature offers infinite ways to support child’s cognitive, physical, and emotional development. This is not to say that nature can completely replace time children spend in the classroom. However, I believe that if teachers and parents neglect the benefits entirely natural environment presents to us, children may miss out on incredible opportunities.
Time spent in nature has decreased in a major way in a past few years. On average youth plays outside in nature 4-7 minutes a day, whilst spending more than 7 hours each day in front of a screen. However, stress, depression and anxiety levels skyrocketed. Antidepressant use has increased by 49 percent among US school-aged children with the largest increase attributed to preschoolers. Healthcare professionals point out a direct link between children deteriorating mental and physical state and practically absence of unstructured outdoor play in the fresh air.
“I would far rather write a prescription for safe outdoor play for my patients than see them five years later with depression, anxiety and obesity.” Dr Wendy Kohatsu
I would like to highlight benefits and advantages of nature play and learning in nature from the perspective of a Montessori educator. Several important aspects positively influence the learning process.
- Nature is the ultimate resource for eco-friendly craft and art materials for children. All materials – pine cones, twigs, shells, fallen leaves, flowers, branches, pebbles, and the list goes on and on are naturally produced by our environment and can be recycled – returned to where originally came from with zero carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, zero water wasted and zero toxins.
- Significant health benefits – it is essential for mental and physical well-being. Children are encouraged to venture outdoors, breathe fresh air, run, take risks, climb. For example, one of the most effective ways for children to experience and learn to appreciate silence is in the forest on the bank of a lake. It creates nothing but stillness, mindfulness, and peace.
- Interaction with living things. Children learn that everything around them is living, flourishing, progressing from one stage to another, coexisting in harmony. Children interact with land that is breathing; they too start to breathe deeper, look closer. Children are the best at observing and absorbing information.
- Children learn to be bold, carefree. As soon as children emerge from the natural environment all social stigmas disappear. They have no one to impress, no one to compete with, they are free to be themselves. This allows children an opportunity to be carefree, take bold steps, challenge and extend their potential.
- Physiologically children learn to relate, be empathetic and understand their behaviours in nature. Children may realise that, just like humans, nature has different patterns and “characters”. Nature can be daring, silent, wild, gentle, gloomy or glorious. There is no one way to “be”. These patterns come and go. Our feelings come and go, we don’t need to be ashamed of feeling one way or another, carry stereotypical cliché of being called “quiet”, “nerdy” or “wild”. Nature changes, we change from one moment to another.
- Hands-on experiences. Nature provides countless opportunities for hands-on learning experiences and discoveries. All children naturally become explorers and artists. They draw with sticks on the ground, they mix soil and water. In nature, children are free to experiment, prove or disprove their own theories.
- Child-driven explorations. Nature presents ways to follow child’s interest and boosts curiosity – they may choose to build a forest house, study trees, investigate, study content of the soil. Their interest is their ultimate motivator.
- Sensory experiences. Every single aspect of learning in nature already predetermined to influence and generate sensory experiences and involve all senses into the learning process.
- Nature as a source of inspiration. Nature is an unbeatable source of inspiration – not just in the sense of creating art but also nature helps to clear head, gain perspective and become more creative at problem-solving.
- Nature is free.
- Educational benefits. I struggle to think of one concept or subject that is impossible to teach using natural environment – science, biology, math, language, art, geography, chemistry, astronomy, technology, art. Nature takes all sorts of forms and shapes – from a backyard to the beach, cave, forest, meadow, lake, waterfall, creek, swamp. It all can be successfully implemented, explored, studied, tested, examined in nature.
- Nature has no walls.
- Children do not require a great deal of adult’s involvement when they play in nature. They can be more independent. Children are more prone to resolve their conflicts and misunderstandings with the minimum participation from adults. They also seem to have much fewer reasons for being unhappy with each other.
- It’s hard to be passive in nature. Even a child who tends to be indifferent when it comes to learning (I would call in unmotivated) still can absorb everything and benefit from stillness and moments of mindfulness that nature brings without having to be very active. Additionally, nature will eventually force anybody to move around – the shade moves, ants get under the shirt, it gets too cold – you are going to be moving whether you like it or not.
- Children learn to embrace sustainable living and be self-sufficient. Nothing is ever wasted in nature. Growing garden, picking edible berries, mushrooms, making tea in the forest – these are all a part of learning to appreciate natural resources and processes. Learning to value what you’ve got and waste not.
- In nature, children learn to connect.
Every child has a high potential to thrive in nature. We need to make sure they experience these advantage early on in life. I grew up in a school located in the forest, and I could not recall as many classes as I do our infinite number of adventures we had there as kids. This experience forever ignited the passion I have for our natural environment and desire to see child’s mind, soul, spirit and body embrace all the benefits nature has to offer.
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