By Debbie Gray
In our fast-paced world we educators are concerned that children are no longer able to spend unhurried hours exploring our natural world. When I was a child, many of my fondest memories were playing outside for hours in nature with friends. Today’s children are not receiving the same unstructured experiences, and are disconnected from nature spending more and more time in an electronic world.
As educators we must be intentional with providing experiences outside for children to be able to slow down and develop a sense of wonder from our great outdoors. “Caring for simple things in nature- like caterpillars, flowers, and lady bugs- help children develop a sense of themselves as nurturers and as people who care. This sense of self contributes to a peaceful way of living- with self, with others, and with the natural world.” (Wilson, 2009) Providing environments rich in nature also supports creativity and problem solving. Studies conducted of children on playgrounds found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green area. They also played more cooperatively (Bell and Dyment, 2006). Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem solving, and math. In a recent case study conducted in 2011, Young children develop foundational skills through child initiated experiences in a Nature Explore Classroom, (Veselack, Chang, and Miller 2011) the findings showed interacting with natural materials, peers, and teachers provided children with many opportunities to develop early math skills. Children explored patterns, the attributes of objects, and shapes, as well as opportunities to measure and count. The math experiences were more meaningful to children because they used the math concepts naturally, in the context of their play.
Creating a nature-based outdoor environment can seem very overwhelming. One simple way to begin is by adding more experiences and activities for children while they are on the playground. I encourage teachers to stop thinking about outside time as just “recess” and to start thinking of your playground as an outdoor learning environment. Plan for outdoor learning with the same intention as you plan for indoor learning.
Fall in Colorado is my favorite season with beautiful colors all around us and pleasant temperatures. Autumn is a wonderful time to incorporate more science/nature activities outside. Here are a few easy suggestions to get your nature-based outdoor classrooms started:
- Add pumpkins for children to explore, carry, and roll. Carve one of the pumpkins so children can see the inside, and watch what happens to the inside over time.
- Make binoculars out of paper towel tubes and take the children on a nature walk, find different shapes in nature, listen to the sounds of nature: birds, squirrels, wind, or how leaves sound when you step on them.
- Add sticks in many different lengths for the children to explore. Incorporate math by comparing how the sizes of two small twigs can equal one larger twig. Count how many small twigs will be needed to add up to one large stick.
- Add leaves. Ask children to pick a leaf and then try to find another one that looks the same, then find leaves that look completely different.
- Create an area for children to do leaf-pounding. Add leaves, paper and hammers. Layer the leaves between the papers and discover what happens when the leaves release chlorophyll.
- Plant a tree
- Add small and large tree cookies for the children to explore, carry and stack.
- Get more in touch with trees by learning about the different parts of a tree, and feel the different textures. Make bark rubbings.
- Sort the seeds from trees such as acorns, walnuts or buckeyes.
As you spend more time exploring nature observe your children to see if they are calm, less distracted, and happy! Please share your favorite fall nature activity.
Resources to consider when creating your natural environment:
Project Learning Tree - www.plt.org
Arbor Day Foundation - www.arborday.org
Colorado Division of Wildlife - www.wildlife.state.co.us.education
Colorado Head Start - www.headstartbodystart.org
CPSC Playground Guidelines - www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pub/325.pdf
Bell AC, Dyment JE. (2006) Grounds for Action: Promoting Physical Activity through School Ground Greening in Canada. Toronto, Ontario: Evergreen; 2006. http://www.evergreen.ca/en/lg/lg-resources.html.
Veselack, E Cain-Chang, Miller D, 2011, Young Children develop foundational skills through child-initiated experiences in a Nature Explorer classroom: A single case study La Canada, California. Growing with Nature, 87
Wilson, R.A. 2009 The color of green: A “go” for peace education. Exchange Magazine, 31 (3): 40-43