If you are like many adults, you spent a great deal of time outdoors as a child. You may have been digging in the dirt, building snow forts, playing in streams, climbing trees, or catching fireflies. In the past, contact with nature was an important and expected part of childhood.
Today, a majority of families live in urban and suburban areas that are covered with asphalt and concrete instead of fields and thickets. Family life is often hectic and heavily scheduled. Fear of crime and concerns about safety have led many families to keep children indoors, and play has too often become a sedentary activity with a computer or video game.
Consequently, children are more disconnected from their natural surroundings than ever before. Research indicates that children are participating in outdoor, nature-related activities less than in the past. In a study conducted by the Nature Conservancy, children younger than 13 engaged in unstructured outdoor play for an average of only 30 minutes a week.
Outdoor experiences in the childcare setting can play an important role in children’s understanding of nature. Including outdoor activities in the childcare day can provide both health benefits as well as learning opportunities. It provides a place for action while stimulating physical activity, learning, and play.
Why Is Nature Important to Children’s Health?
The separation of children from nature is unfortunate. Children benefit mentally and physically from contact with the “great outdoors;” and some health-related problems may be lessened when children have increased opportunities for nature play.
An estimated 12 percent of young children are overweight, and up to 25 percent are at risk for overweight. Being overweight in childhood may lead to weight-related health problems such as high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. Being outdoors promotes more physically active play, a key component to weight control for children.
Like adults, children experience stress, and nature can help them cope with its effects. One study found that when children had access to green plants and natural play areas and vistas, their stress levels were reduced. Contact with nature can also benefit those who struggle with depression.
Outdoor time can have additional health benefits. One study indicated that children who have regular, daily access to natural, “green” environments have more manageable symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD).
Contact with nature may even speed the healing process. Patients with views of the outdoors had shorter hospital stays, a more positive outlook, and need for fewer pain medications than patients who looked out on brick walls from their windows.
What Is Being Done to Get Children Outdoors?
Recently, there has been a movement to bring nature back into the lives of children. The Children and Nature Network is one organization dedicated to encouraging children to reconnect with nature.
In California, a “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights” has been adopted that lists 10 activities that every child should participate in before entering high school. The list includes splashing in water, playing in a safe place, exploring nature, and following a trail. Other states and organizations have enacted similar initiatives to encourage more contact between children and nature.
Childcare’s Role in Outdoor Play
Think of ways to make children’s childcare experiences with nature more beneficial to their health. Encourage active play that combats obesity, using those louder “outdoor voices” to alleviate stress, and retiring to the natural world when you feel sad or depressed. These are skills children can use throughout life.
The most important element of getting children back in touch with nature is planning. Make it a priority to include outdoor activities on the daily schedule in childcare settings. This can be challenging as some seasons offer less than ideal weather or temperatures. Planning ahead for activities that can be done in all kinds of weather will help children enjoy nature year-round.
Nature offers endless opportunities for discovery and exploration. Exposure to elements of nature, like wildlife, birds, insects, seeds, plants, flowers, trees, leaves, clouds, rain, snow, and sun offer children new experiences and appreciation for their world.
You probably have many aspects of nature already integrated into your curriculum. Do you teach children about animals, insects, and birds? Have you observed seasonal changes with children? Are there opportunities for children to explore leaves, snow, rain and sand?
All of these are nature activities and give you a good start toward integrating nature into the children’s daily activities. Gardening, digging in dirt, nature walks, and field trips are additional ideas for adding to your nature curriculum.
Even if you look out the window of your childcare facility and see sidewalks and street signs, there are ways to bring nature to young children. Think creatively about how nature is part of urban life.
Parks, fountains, city gardens, and flower beds offer experiences with nature. Even rain puddles on asphalt or snow sticking to a statue can offer outdoor learning experiences.
Remember to access community resources. Local park rangers, wildlife experts, cooperative extension agents, and naturalists may have ideas for outdoor activities that are appropriate for young children.
Health and Safety Concerns
An essential part of nature education in the childcare setting is learning to be safe in outdoor environments. Since many children may have limited opportunities for exploring nature at home, it is important for childcare providers to model and explain outdoor safety practices.
Teach children about the potential hazards of poisonous plants (including some mushrooms) and the importance of respecting wildlife. Sunburn, insect stings, poison ivy, and unsuitable clothing can make for an unpleasant nature walk, so teach children to be prepared by applying sunscreen, choosing weather-appropriate clothes, and carrying an emergency kit.
Nature offers many benefits for children and adults. As a childcare provider, you have a unique opportunity to guide children’s early experiences with the wonders of nature. When you model curiosity, admiration, and respect for the natural world, children will follow your example and find nature is a fun, healthy environment to learn and grow.
Marna Holland, PhD
Parent Educator, Asheville City Preschools, Asheville, NC
Children and Nature 2008: A Report on the Movement to Reconnect Children to the Natural World, www.childrenandnature.org/uploads/CNMovement.pdf
Children and Nature Network, www.childrenandnature.org
Children’s Outdoor Play and Learning Environments, www.whitehutchinson.com/children/articles/outdoor.shtml
Outdoor Activities, www.childcare.net/kids-outdoor-activities.shtml
Outdoor Play with Preschoolers, www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/pdfs/FCS507.pdf