The Top 5 Educational Benefits of Nature Play

Excerpt from my blog post "Not Better Classroom Than Nature" on the ImaginED blog

Since launching my own nature-based preschool program, my understanding of imaginative play has evolved dramatically. Within minutes of getting outside each morning, children as young as three become engaged in tasks of their own choosing and remain deeply focused for extended lengths of time with no outside prompting. Some choose to play independently, challenging their balance by leaping around our stump circle, soothing themselves by climbing a familiar tree, or collecting mud and leaves to create delicacies in our mud kitchen. Others engage in complex group play, often building upon a scenario developed on a previous day. A ladder balanced across two tires becomes a bridge with a troll under it, a pirate ship bound for foreign lands, or the counter of a bakery stocked with mud pies. The humble stick becomes a sword, a magic wand, a fishing line, a key.

There is none of the direct instruction typical in most early childhood classrooms, but there is no shortage of learning either. Leaves are collected and exchanged as currency, helping to hone math skills, and sidewalk chalk is used to create signs on scraps of wood, allowing the children to practice their writing skills in a meaningful context. Building ramps and bridges allows the children to explore engineering and physics while simultaneously developing their gross motor skills by carrying heavy objects and balancing on slippery or uneven surfaces. All the “subjects” that would be taught indoors are covered naturally through the children’s organic play and exploration. And as pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom outlines in her book Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children, the natural setting also allows for the development of a wide range of “soft” skills; things like cooperation, creativity, self-regulation, and flexibility, all essential for healthy development and long-term success.

Freed from the confines of an indoor classroom and the traditional school day schedule, the children have free reign to be as loud and dirty and messy as they desire. Despite this (or perhaps because of it), there is never a feeling of chaos. Energy and activity ebb and flow, but arguments are infrequent and when disputes arise they are generally resolved by the children with little adult intervention.

By stripping away the bulk of adult impositions, from cutesy crafts to superfluous rules, the children have been given back their natural freedom. They are allowed the time and space to get “bored,” and as a result, they quickly come up with endeavors far more creative and entertaining than any that an adult could ever have imagined. They are confronted with risks and challenges, and they rise to the occasion. When given true independence, they prove to be competent, capable, and compassionate beings.

We’re all familiar with the trite saying “less is more,” but in the case of early childhood education, it really is true. There is no better teacher than experience, no better classroom than nature. The more that we adults can remove ourselves from the equation, the more freedom we can gift our children, and the better off they will be.

Click below to download "The Top 5 Educational Benefits of Nature Play"

Emma Huvos