Have you ever watched a young child observing a bug? She squats and stares intently. She uses her finger or a stick to poke at the bug to see how it moves. She may try to pet the bug, and sometimes she smashes it with a stone. The child is exploring. She wants to see what makes the bug work both outside and in.
School age children investigate differently. They look under rocks. They climb up in trees and under bushes. They gather insects, rocks, leaves, and flowers. They dissect their treasures. They make potions.
Children want to play outside, and spending time in nature helps them develop in ways that are not possible without outdoor experiences. Many of today’s children spend little time playing outside. Even more have their only outside time on paved playgrounds or on city sidewalks.
Dr. William Crain, a developmental psychologist, had an article titled “How Nature Helps Children Develop” published in the Summer 2001 Montessori LIFE. In the article Dr. Crain stated that he sees “at least three major ways in which nature helps children develop”. He indicated that nature stimulates powers of observation, fosters creativity, and instills a sense of peace and being at one with the world.
As parents we can assist in fostering these traits in our children, which expands the development that takes place inside the home and the classroom.
Vacant lots, untended outdoor areas, and state or national parks provide myriad opportunities for children to explore nature in the wild. Undisturbed exploration time results in children quietly watching their environment. They notice the habits of insects, birds, and animals. They watch how wind patterns change, and what water currents do. When left alone with nature, even active children become absorbed in observation.
After a time of undisturbed exploration, you might ask your children some guiding questions. For example, have them close their eyes and count the different sounds they hear. Name the sounds. Suggest that they close their eyes and feel the wind on their faces, arms, and legs. Is the air warm or cool? Does it feel the same on each body part? Be creative in asking them to notice different aspects of the environment.
Children enjoy sharing what they’ve seen and discovered. Taking time to talk to them about their discoveries strengthens their recall and communication skills as well as refining their observation skills.
Older children enjoy serving as tour guides in the areas they’ve discovered. As they guide you through an open area, they share minute details of what they’ve seen and want you to observe.
Watching your children during their explorations provides you with information about what interests them. When you see what captivates their attention, you can assist them toward expanding that interest through follow-up exploration at the library or on the Internet.
Nature seduces one into a creative state. Children love to build. In a natural setting, they build forts, tree houses, roads, and communities. They build clubhouses and hideouts. They use branches, stones, piles of leaves, and the overhangs of bushes and trees for their structures. If they are available they add blankets, sheets or towels. Building requires imaginative responses. The play that takes place during and following the building is filled with creative imagining.
Nature accesses a child’s innate bent toward the creation of poetry and song. While children play, they make up songs about what they are doing. They sing to bugs and animals. They make up poems.
You can strengthen this creative energy by encouraging your children to make up a rhyme, poem or story. Start by having the children describe what they see, hear, and feel. Then say, “Maybe you could use those words in a poem or story”. Young children frequently do this spontaneously or with only a bit of encouragement. They do not encounter the creative inhibitions that older children and adults do.
If you have observed a child sitting or standing by a stream or in a garden, you may have noticed that she seems to be in an almost dream-like state. She may be absentmindedly moving a stick back and forth in the dirt, fingering a flower, or swishing her hand aimlessly in the water. The natural setting induces this meditative state. It is a feeling that becomes so embedded in an individual that later in life it is recalled when in a similar situation. Have you ever had the experience of saying something like, “I feel just like I did when I played in my grandmother’s yard“? More than likely this feeling is not based on a state where you were alertly observing or playing but one where you were absentmindedly experiencing your environment.
If children have enough opportunity to be in nature to both play and to enter this feeling of at-oneness, they may be able to draw on that feeling during stressful times as a way of calming themselves.
You can assist your children in achieving a sense of peace by providing the opportunity for them to be outdoors and, as often as possible, to be in undeveloped natural areas. Plan time that does not have to be hurried and time where the children can be by themselves. This does not mean leaving them unsupervised. It does mean that you are aware of where they are but not interacting with them or guiding them in an activity.
If you are a city dweller, it may seem that expanding child development through nature is a pipe dream. While wild and undeveloped areas benefit children greatly, city parks or backyards can also provide valuable experiences. What needs to be kept in mind is that children must get outside. They must leave the television and computer. They must have some time to play in unpaved areas. As parents, we must do our best to provide experiences in nature for our children both to expand their development and to instill an appreciation of the natural environment.