The value of nature play for toddlers

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You may already be an advocate for nature play. Perhaps you have seen the joy it brings to your children or observed them engage in deeper, more imaginative play while outdoors. In a society still learning to accept and promote open-ended learning and move away from worksheet lessons and ever-increasing screen time, nature play and simply being outdoors can be forgotten.

Learning through open ended play

Nature provides the ultimate opportunity for open-ended play. Here, children are more likely to engage in imaginative play and adopt an attitude of curiosity which naturally leads to learning¹. Nature provides a tangible space where children can observe, engage and receive feedback². There are no limitations or set ways of playing, allowing for freedom of exploration that promotes self-esteem growth. Our internal narrative develops very early, providing an opportunity for this narrative to be one of encouragement, confidence and belief in our intrinsic ability is so empowering for children. 

Social development

Many studies evidence a relationship between nature play and increased ability for self-control and conflict management³. Children who regularly engage in unstructured play outdoors have been evidenced to have improved emotion regulation, confidence and cognitive functioning¹. These are key skills for not only forming social relationships but for maintaining them too. Richard Louv has documented the negative consequences that may arise from a childhood disconnected from nature.

When the outdoors is explored with a parent or caregiver, important social bonds and connections are formed³. The impact of early attachment relationships is now well known as reducing the likelihood of emotion-regulation, behavioural and relationship difficulties in the future².

Developing environmental values

This study shows that when children can recognise the intrinsic value of non-human beings, they then also feel the need to protect and care for them. Children are capable of developing empathy for non-human beings, such as wildlife and plants³. Even children as young as four have the developmental ability to take into account the views of others¹. This study showed that nature play increased children’s affiliation with the natural world. Exposure to nature and the environment strengthens not only an interest in other forms of life. Still, it serves to raise a generation who will take action in caring and protecting our world. 

Emotion development

Connection to the natural world serves to support emotional wellbeing too. Gardening and unstructured outdoor play serve as a mindful, grounding practice within itself. Reminding little bodies to be in the present moment and be guided by their intrinsic ability to learn and grow through play.

All while classic academic education expectations are being developed too; literacy and numeracy need not be taught within the classroom walls and the realms of worksheets. Nature provides a space for child-led learning. Gardening provides a space for measurement as one sows seeds or quantifies the growth of a plant. Literacy can be explored within books related to the knowledge needed to garden through storytelling or simple documentation. For example, gratitude can be fostered from a deep understanding of what is involved in growing food when children are provided with a hands-on learning experience to nurture a garden.

Nature play isn’t a trend, nor should it be seen as an extra or bonus to standard schooling practices. Time spent in nature is necessary to our overall wellbeing and functioning. In providing an educational space that serves to meet the whole child’s needs, we are establishing foundations for them to lead meaningful lives. A life that gifts them with the freedom to be who they are meant to be, follow their passions take awe in the natural world, and foster compassion to care for it and others.

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About the author

Mandy Richardson is a qualified Early Childhood Educator and also holds a Masters in Childhood Studies. She is currently completing her PhD in Respectful Parenting Methods. She is passionate about promoting a positive parent-child relationship and a natural, slow paced, peaceful and fulfilling childhood.

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