Making time for nature play
Although many parks, playgrounds, beaches and public spaces are currently off limits, this doesn’t mean children cannot reap the benefits of interacting with the natural world during the COVID-19 pandemic.
During this time many children (along with their parents and teachers) might be experiencing restlessness from being confined to indoor settings and spending extra time in front of screens.
It is important to remember that young children still need some freedom to run, explore, use their imaginations and interact with the world around them.
It is the ideal time for early childhood education teachers and assistants to help parents reflect on and learn about the benefits of nature play, which has been proven to nourish developing minds and benefit children’s social, physical and emotional growth.
What is nature play?
A recent world first review into nature play, led by University of South Australia Masters student Kylie Dankiw, examined 16 studies on the impacts of nature play on the wellbeing and the development of children between 2 and 12 years old.
Although there is no universal definition, nature play is described by Dankiw simply as ‘children playing freely, with, and in nature.’
Nature play can take place is settings where kids can freely interact with natural elements like trees, plants, sand, rocks and water.
Benefits for children
Although it’s not a new concept, the findings of the nature play research review demonstrate that allowing children to engage in free, unstructured play in an outdoor setting is highly beneficial for their development.
“The review found that nature play improved children’s levels of physical activity, health-related fitness, motor skills, learning and social and emotional development,” Dankiw said.
“It showed that nature play may deliver improvements in cognitive and learning outcomes, including children’s levels of attention and concentration, punctuality, settling in class, constructive play, social play as well as imaginative and functional play.
“Nature play also positively impacted children’s levels of physical activity and health-related fitness, including fine motor-skills relating to improved levels of balance and flexibility,” she said.
Nature play in the time of COVID-19
Animal and birdwatching: encourage little ones to keep an eye out for birds and other animals that might be around, such as kangaroos, cats, reptiles and frogs (depending on where you are). Ask the children questions as to what they know about each animal and teach them some information about every creature they discover i.e. habitats, life cycle, diet, role in ecosystem.
Stargazing: teach children about space, planets and the milky way galaxy by looking at the sky on a clear night, pointing out different stars, planets and constellations and explaining a bit about them. If you have a telescope, it will be a great astronomy lesson.
Organise a scavenger hunt: scavenger hunts can be a fun activity for children of all ages. They can be played in almost any setting by giving kids a list of things to collect and a time limit in which to do so, which will inspire them to explore.
Collect flowers, leaves and stones to make art: children can make jewellery, photo frames, pressed flowers, bark rubbings, pet rocks or collect items to bring home and draw sketches of. Be flexible and let their creative imaginations run wild.
Watch the clouds, sunrises and sunsets: doing this demonstrates nature in action and will give them a science lesson. Ask them questions and answer theirs with age-appropriate responses.
Always bear in mind that nature play should take place under the duty of care obligations that teachers and assistants have to students.
If you are an early childhood education teacher or assistant who is looking for some inspiration or ideas as to how you can incorporate nature play into your children’s days, the Nature Play Queensland website contains a variety of resources for teachers and families to use.
They list a range of events, activities, educational tools and practical solutions for supervising adults to help children of all ages get a dose of nature play during the pandemic lockdown restrictions.
The Guardian recently published an excellent article listing a variety of ideas as to how adults, particularly parents supervising learning-from-home, can turn their daily walk into a ‘nature home school.’
It is a great starting point for staff and parents to use during these uncertain times, to ensure their children experience the benefits of mother nature’s magic.