Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Nature Experiences for Young Children

How Important are Nature Experiences?

For one of my research assignments for class, I chose to learn about how direct experiences with nature can affect child development.  I found this topic to be so interesting and relevant that I wanted to share it with you.  Among other resources, I read Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-deficit Disorder by Richard Louv.  I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is curious about why outdoor exploration and nature play is so very important for our children and their cognitive, social, and emotional development.

Most of us spent far less time playing outdoors during our childhood than our parents and grandparents did.  Our own children will probably spend even less of their time outside.  In past decades, children were more likely to direct their energy towards “doing farm chores, bailing hay, splashing in a swimming hole, climbing trees, racing to the sandlot for a game of baseball” (Louv, 2005).  They were also free to wander around in their backyards, exploring the fields, woods, rivers, and streams. 

Children today spend much of their time learning indoors from textbooks and machines.  Hiking, fishing, and gardening have been replaced by pastimes such as television, video games, and computer games.  Instead of challenging their brains in healthy and productive ways, children are passive recipients during these activities.

The Children’s Hospital and Regional Medical Center in Seattle warns parents against letting preschoolers watch TV, which can contribute to concentration problems and other symptoms of attention-deficit disorders (Louv, 2005).  The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends for children under the age of two not to watch any TV at all, because it interferes with their brain development.  In addition to all of this, TV and other electronics steal away precious time that children could be using to engage in active, creative outdoor play.

Montessori and Waldorf schools have a long history of advocating for children to enjoy hands-on experiences with nature.  Children engage in “endless sensory experiences that support the observation skills underlying scientific thinking and aesthetic awareness” (Torquati & Barber, 2005).  There are numerous ways that contact with nature, especially through unstructured and imaginative play, can benefit children and contribute to their development.  Some of the benefits include: greater physical health, increased creativity, reduced stress, more concern for other living things, and a greater awareness of the natural environment.

1.  Greater Physical Health
When children encounter a variety outdoor experiences, they are likely to use their bodies in different ways, which results in the development of superior physical abilities.  Studies in Norway and Sweden compared preschool children who played on flat playgrounds to those who played for the same amount of time among trees, rocks, and uneven ground of natural play areas.  “Over a year’s time, the children who played in natural areas tested better for motor fitness, especially in balance and agility” (Louv, 2005).

2.  Increased Creativity
Creativity is cultivated when children in a natural setting rely on their imaginations and inventiveness to guide their play.  Children’s minds need the experiences and the challenges that nature presents because these situations can not be recreated inside of the classroom (O’Brien, 2007).  Seeing the world through a lens, screen, or computer monitor is not the same as experiencing it in the great outdoors.

3.  Stress Reduction
Not only do children who live in high-nature environments demonstrate less psychological stress from daily events than children who live in low-nature conditions, but their exposure to nature can even “reduce symptoms of ADHD and improve children’s resistance to negative stresses and depression” (Louv, 2005).

4.  Concern for Other Living Things
In our high-tech society, many of us live in a way that separates us from the natural world and "makes it difficult for us to understand and care about the planet that sustains us” (O’Brien, 2007).  We automatically pass on these attitudes of indifference to younger generations.  Many children and adults do not value anything beyond what directly affects them on a daily basis.  “Children who have fewer experiences with the natural world become parents who are unable to share such knowledge with their children so that each generation has less environmental knowledge” (Torquati & Barber, 2005). Rather than viewing nature as an environmental catastrophe that needs to be “fixed”, or in terms of lab experiments, we should encourage our children to acquire a true appreciation for all living things.

5.  Awareness of the Natural Environment
 “Nature; the sublime, the harsh, and the beautiful; offers something that the street or gated community or computer game cannot” (Louv, 2005).  If adults step back and allow children to explore, children will be self-motivated to learn from their natural surroundings. “Without adult instruction or interference, children will interact with natural objects in a wide range of deliberative and expressive sequential processes to better understand what goes on in the world around them” (Williams, 2008). We can not expect children to feel a connection to or a true respect for the environment until they have spent a significant amount of time in the natural world.

What can we do?

A growing body of evidence suggests that contact with nature is “as important to children as good nutrition and adequate sleep” (Louv, 2005).  As parents, teachers, and adults in the community, we are responsible for providing these opportunities for future generations.  We can encourage our children to diverge from the mentality of a consumerist society.  They do not need to be “plugged in” to technology at all times.  Boredom and simplicity are not always bad things, as they can foster creativity and cognitive advancement.  Even the littlest babies can begin to love and respect the natural world. “Infants delight in the sights and sounds of nature, which offer constant variety and interest but are not over-stimulating.  These very early experiences captivate their interest and support their curiosity and comfort with nature” (Torquati & Barber, 2005).

I have never been an “outdoorsy” type of person, but all of this has motivated me to discover some new ways to spend time with Ryan outside.  While free play and exploration is ideal, it can also be beneficial for parents to gently guide their young toddlers through new nature discoveries.

I have started to compile a list of nature activities that toddlers and might enjoy.  Here's what I’ve got so far:

1.  Pick apples, berries, and other fruits/vegetables on a farm
     2.  Compare ripe and unripe vegetables
     3.  Take apart fruits and vegetables to examine the seeds
     4.  Play on “natural playgrounds” (water, trees, flowers, insects, animals, grass, stones, sand)
     5.  Play on “adventure playgrounds” (old tires, boards, tools, a variety of places to build/dig)
     6.  Look at insects of various shapes and sizes under a hand lens
     7.  Feed ducks or other creatures in a pond

8.  Plant a garden, water it, and watch it grow over time
9.  Explore sand and soil
10.  Visit a butterfly habitat
11.  Read books and poems outside
12.  Search for worms following a rainfall and observe the worms in action
13.  Visit a nature center

14.  Make a biodegradable bird feeder and put water and food inside to attract birds to your yard
15.  Jump and splash in puddles
16.  Dig in dirt or mud with small shovels, cups, and old spoons
17.  Play with a water sprinkler and hose
18.  Write or paint with rocks and mud
19.  Make nature rubbings from leaves, rocks, and bark
20.  Look for the different colors that you can find in nature
21.  Collect sticks, leaves, rocks, stones, and pine cones

22.  Make a mobile out of things that you find outside
23.  Plant sunflowers that will grow tall enough to be “walls”
24.  Make mud pies in an outdoor kitchen
25.  Visit a state park
26.  Go on a hike that includes a scavenger hunt

27.  Spend a night, or even a few hours, camping in your backyard
28.  Gaze at the stars in the night sky
29.  Build a campfire, tell stories, and eat s’mores
30.  Navigate through a corn maze
31.  Skip rocks in the river
32.  Climb trees
33.  Invent your own nature game

34.  Pick up trash around the neighborhood
35.  Rinse out old jars and bottles, then put them into the recycle bin
36.  Play hopscotch (use chalk or dirt and a stick to draw it)
37.  Visit a local farmer’s market
38.  Make homemade binoculars and then watch the birds
39.  Gather sticks, drop them in a stream, and watch them float away
40.  Collect lightning bugs and then release them
41.  Make an obstacle course out of logs
42.  Practice nature photography with an inexpensive camera
43.  Admire flowers that are in bloom

44.  Keep a treasure basket full of things collected from outside
45.  Keep a nature journal full of drawings of your discoveries
46.  Build a tree house or fort
47.  Visit the animals at a farm or zoo
48.  Describe the shapes of clouds
49.  Fly a kite
50.  Have a picnic or BBQ

This spring and summer, I hope to check some of these off my list.  I am looking for more ideas about things to do with toddlers outside.  I found these two amazing blogs that are completely focused on outdoor play:  CaroandCo and CreativeStarLearning.  Please let me know if you have any other ideas or resources!

Louv, R. (2005). Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder. New York: Algonquin Books.
O’Brien, L. M. (2007). Raising children who care for our world. Association for Childhood Education International, 83(5), 322-323.
Torquati, J. & Barber, J. (2005). Dancing with trees: Infants and toddlers in the garden. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 40-46.
Ward, Jennifer. (2008)  I love dirt!  Boston: Trumpeter Books.
Williams, A. E. (2008). Exploring the natural world with infants and toddlers in an urban setting. National Association for the Education of Young Children, 22-25.


  1. I love your blog... thanks a lot for the very useful info..

  2. @Christa and @Lobna Hammam- Thanks! You are so welcome.


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