Learning from Nature
Posted on October 11, 2017 by CHS
“If a child is to keep alive his inborn sense of wonder, he needs the companionship of at least one adult who can share it, rediscovering with him the joy, excitement, and mystery of the world we live in.” - Rachel Carson
Time spent learning in nature provides physical, emotional, and mental benefits to both children and adults. Experiencing nature can offer the opportunity to develop curiosity, confidence, the ability to solve problems, and the chance to learn in a unique setting. Despite all the benefits nature provides, research over the last decade has shown that children have become more disconnected from nature. Children are spending more time indoors, and nature spaces are harder to find. It is now up to parents and educators to encourage outdoor play and promote learning from nature.
Benefits of Learning from Nature
Nature can have a positive impact on all areas of a child’s growth and development. The Natural Learning Initiative has created an information sheet in English and Spanish regarding the following benefits children can receive from nature learning:
- Nature provides free loose parts to develop children’s creativity and critical thinking. Loose parts are objects that can be used in an infinite number of ways. For example, a sea shell can scoop sand, or it can be used in imaginative play as a plate, building material, or a game piece. Learning to see multiple purposes for objects is an important cognitive skill.
- Time spent in nature reduces stress.
- Children learn to solve problems in a practical hands-on way.
- Time outside helps children focus and improve their cognitive abilities.
- Outdoor classrooms increase students’ performance in social studies, science, math, and language arts.
- For children five years of age and older, time outside can help reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
- Children who spend time outdoors lead a more physically active lifestyle.
- When children grow their own fruits and vegetables in a garden, they are more likely to eat them and develop better nutrition habits.
- Children who play outside are less likely to develop nearsightedness (difficulty seeing items at a distance).
- Playing outside with others gives children the chance to improve their social development. When playing outside, they learn to negotiate, collaborate, form friendships, practice social roles, and create their own games with unique rules.
- When children are observing nature they practice more self-regulation skills. They learn, for example, that they need to be quiet when watching a bird or small animal. They also learn to wait for their turn on climbing equipment, slides, and swings.
- Nature helps children develop empathy. When children care for plants, gardens, and pets they learn to consider the needs of others. Through observation and care, they learn that everything has unique needs. All living things have different food sources and shelters. They also learn that they have the power to help others by caring for living things.
Activities for Learning from Nature
Most of the materials you will need to create learning experiences are already out there in nature waiting to be found. Start by looking for nature spaces that you can visit on a regular basis. These can include your own backyard or patio, a neighborhood park, state parks, beaches, or arboretums and botanical gardens. You can check your city or county webpage to find regional parks or wilderness areas that are close to your home. They are usually listed under the “Parks and Recreation” section of the website. Once you have found the right nature space to visit, you can try one of the following activities for learning through nature.
- Observe, Collect, and Learn
Invite your child to a park, or sit in your backyard. Ask her to sit down, close her eyes, and listen for sounds. After sitting quietly for a minute or so ask her what she can hear. You can also ask children to point in the direction of each sound. Next, ask your child to open her eyes and look around. As she describes what she sees, ask questions that require her to give you a more detailed answer such as, “Describe the way the leaves look.”
Take this activity a step further by asking her to draw what she hears and sees in a journal. You can also go for a walk and stop periodically to repeat this activity, and then talk about how the sounds and sights were similar or different. Take a bag with you as you walk and collect nature items that have fallen to the ground such as leaves, acorns, pinecones, twigs, and flower petals. When you get home, sit down with your child, and take a closer look at what is in your bag. You can use a magnifying glass to look at items up close, sort them by their size, shape, color, or type, and save them for future projects.
- Cook in a Mud Kitchen
Children practice math skills and imaginative play in mud kitchens. Gather some old pots, pans, bowls, spoons, spatulas, measuring cups, colanders, and plates and take them outside. Next, you just need one or two dish tubs, some water, and some dirt. Allow your child to help you make mud in the dish tubs, and then have fun cooking! For more mud kitchen ideas, visit the Muddy Faces website.
- Relax in a Sensory Garden
Create a sensory garden with your child. You can start out small and slowly add to it. If you do not have an outdoor space, you can still create a garden inside by using windowsills or a table in front of a window for potted plants. You could also create a garden in a tray. Plant small pots of herbs like thyme, basil, and mint that are fragrant. Lucky bamboo, lamb’s ear, and ferns offer interesting textures. You can also plant colorful vegetables and fruit for children to grow, harvest, and taste. Try tomatoes, strawberries, squash, or rainbow chard.
Make your garden more interesting with spider plants that are hung from hooks on patios so children can watch them blow in the wind. You can also select plants that will attract butterflies to your garden.
- Create and Invent with Nature’s Loose Parts
Nature offers children wonderful bits and pieces that they can use to represent other objects in imaginative play, build something new, or create a work of art. The wonderful thing about loose parts is that they have infinite possibilities. Some examples of loose parts that children can find in nature are small branches, sticks, rocks, acorns, leaves, sea shells, pinecones, flowers, seeds, feathers, and chunks of wood.
Children can use these loose parts in their mud kitchen as utensils, plates, or food. Children can build structures with rocks, or add nature items to things they already have to build in a new way. For example, they can add rocks, sticks, and chunks of wood, and sea shells to blocks, toy cars, plastic animals, or action figures. Support children’s curiosity and guide them to use their creativity and critical thinking by asking questions like, “How can we use this?”
Loose parts from nature can also be used for art projects. Children can sort nature items into separate containers and use them for future crafts. They can make a nature collage with paper and glue, or add pieces of nature to clay to create sculptures. Practice fine motor skills with weaving. Use sticks and yarn to make a nature loom. Once the loom is made, children can weave flowers, leaves, long grass, and other items to make a unique design. Children can paint on rocks and sea shells, or use them as game pieces to play Tic-Tac-Toe. For more inspiration, take a look at this photo slide show.
To view more games, activities, and resources for learning with nature visit:
- Discover the Forest (activities and resources): https://www.discovertheforest.org/
- Easy Nature Crafts for Kids by Red Ted Art: https://www.redtedart.com/easy-nature-crafts-kids/
- Nature Cat (games, videos, and activities) by PBS: http://pbskids.org/naturecat/
- Nature Crafts by Activity Village: https://www.activityvillage.co.uk/nature-crafts
- Nature for Kids (activities, games, and experiments): http://www.sciencekids.co.nz/nature.html
- The Best Nature Apps for Kids by the Sierra Club: http://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2016-1-january-february/green-life/best-nature-apps-for-kids
- Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature by the Natural Learning Initiative (English): https://naturalearning.org/sites/default/files/Benefits%20of%20Connecting%20Children%20with%20Nature_InfoSheet.pdf
- Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature by the Natural Learning Initiative (Spanish): https://naturalearning.org/sites/default/files/Spanish%20Connecting%20Children%20with%20Nature.pdf
- Children and Nature Network (resources, tools, and research): http://www.childrenandnature.org/
- Connecting Young Children with Nature by Condie Ward: http://www.naeyc.org/tyc/article/connecting-young-children-with-nature
- Early Introductions to Sensory Gardens for Infants and Toddlers by Growing Minds Farm to School: http://growing-minds.org/early-introductions-to-sensory-gardens-infants-and-toddlers/
- Gardening with Kids: How it Affects Your Child’s Brain, Body, and Soul by PBS Expert Tips and Advice: http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2016/03/gardening-kids-affects-childs-brain-body-soul/?utm_source=pbsparentsnewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=parents_expert
- How Caring for Living Things Helps Kids Develop Empathy by PBS Expert Tips and Advice: http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2016/04/caring-empathy/?utm_source=pbsparentsnewsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=parents_expert
- The Learning in Loose Parts by Heather Fox and Susie Wirth: https://www.communityplaythings.com/resources/articles/2015/the-learning-in-loose-parts