The benefits of nature play have been known for many years, but more recently evidence-based research is documenting groups of children that have matriculated through early childhood programs and are able to display the real benefits daily exposure to nature contributed to their physical, cognitive and social-emotional development. See notes at the end of this article for links to research confirming our passion for keeping outdoor play a part of the daily life of children.
Gross Motor Skills & Coordination: It seems counter-intuitive at first, but constant exposure to walking on uneven trails, while navigating roots, rocks and other obstacles is a real boost to one’s sense of balance and coordination. Children who have struggled with clumsiness and general lack of coordination are challenged at first, but soon “get new legs” beneath them.
Upper Body Strength: Extended time in nature allows for all kinds of movement that we might typically restrict during inside play including climbing. Whether they scale a tree, using their arms to fully pull their own body weight, or just gain more use of their upper body by using their arms and shoulders as they navigate tree trunks on the forest floor, it takes little time to see an increase in upper body strength. It is very rewarding to witness the moment when a child realizes they have more strength than they once had.
Core Strength: As children increase in movement, they will naturally be performing activities that enhance overall strength. However a specific contributor to core strength are the types of projects children find themselves collaborating on as they engage in nature play. Building forts and bridges involved carrying and lifting – sometimes over distances as they port materials across their playspace. These kinds of movements go a long way to building up important core muscles.
Endurance: Each child arrives to a forest school or nature play setting with their own tolerance threshold for temperature and physical activity. Part of the journey as a nature guide is helping children stretch those thresholds in safe ways in order to build endurance. Modeling appropriate clothing for both staying warm and keeping cool, for instance, goes a long way to helping children self-regulate their own levels of endurance. Teaching them to drink to stay cool in the summer months and find sunny spots to keep warm in the winter to warm themselves allow them to stretch their personal boundaries and accomplish things they never thought possible of themselves.
Postural Control: As core strength, upper body strength, and gross motor coordination improve, we also see an increase in postural control. This refers to a child’s ability to sit upright without support without experiencing fatigue, while using the arms and legs to move freely. As children build more and more muscle tone in their daily nature play, so increases their postural control. This is also connected to an increased sense of equilibrium and balance.
Fine Motor Skills: In addition to the increase of Gross Motor Development, children will also develop their fine motor skills through the use of tools. The grasping rope, string, or twine in a construction or weaving project is a great example. The use of many gardening tools, as well as the act of weeding and delicately planting seedlings is another way children intricately use their developing fine motor skills. And don’t forget all the time touching, feeling and foraging as we let our imaginations and curiosity run wild identifying plants, trees and animals. Thumbing though field guides can also be a real workout.
Development of the Senses: Sensory integration is, perhaps, one of the greatest gifts of a forest education! Allowing the nervous system to “reset” and integrate the sensation of light filtering thought the leaves, the spicy smell of vegetation underfoot, the sound and feel of a breeze, as well as the sense of the weight of our own bodies as we move along an unpaved path is a true vitamin for the nervous system. Even for the neurodivergent, introducing these times of sensory awareness in small increments is an organically friendly way to open their Sensory Awareness to a fuller experience.
Risk Taking: Not enough can be said about the need for children to be exposed to opportunities for decision making and risk taking. Not scary, haphazard, dangerous risks that put them in harm’s way, but calculated choices that lead to discovery. Because the primary method of instruction and guidance (we don’t even like to call ourselves “teachers”) in forest school and nature play is open-ended questioning, children are allowed to explore their own conclusions and ideas without fear of failure or being wrong. This leads to innovation, creativity, self-confidence and is, I think, the key building block for healthy self-image.
Special thanks to Jean Lomino at the Forest Teacher Institute whose contributed to the resourcing and development of this article.
Articles for Further Study:
Why Kids Need to Spend Time in Nature, Child Mind Institute.
Nurtured by Nature, American Psychological Association.
Six Ways Nature Helps Children Learn, Greater Good Science Center, University of California, Berkeley.
Why Naturalize Outdoor Learning Environments? Natural Learning Initiative, North Carolina State University.
Nature-Based Education and Kindergarten Readiness: Nature-Based and Traditional Preschoolers are Equally Prepared for Kindergarten, The International Journal of Early Childhood Education.