nature play

Social and Emotional Benefits of Nature Play

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.

Independence: One of the most important tenants of forest school and nature play is child initiated instruction. This is sometimes also referred to as child centered learning or child directed learning. Unlike the traditional classroom setting where a teacher decides the lessons and goals for the day, the children are not passively receiving information. Instead, lessons are based on their encounters with nature and the interests that develop from those encounters. This alone, fosters a spirit of independence, question asking, and innovation.

Respect and Compassion: It is not unusual for nature play environments to include multi-age groupings. In this way, older children are compelled to assist younger children as they remember the near past when they learned whatever skill with which a younger friend might struggle. Younger children are able to see the differences in physical, cognitive, and other kinds of development (even if they can’t name them) between them and the older children and learn respect, looking forward to learning these skills. This “give and take” among the children creates a peaceful environment where collaboration instead of competition is the rule of the day.

Photo by Nurpalah Dee on Unsplash

Resilience & Perseverance: One inevitable side-effect of child directed learning is the use of the scientific method in problem solving. Of course, rarely are we 100% correct on our very first trial. This healthy perspective of trial and error builds a reliance missing in the educational processes found in many traditional classroom settings.

Self-confidence: The fertile soil of resilience is a wonder place for self-confidence to flourish. If trying and not accomplishing your goal isn’t really “failing,” then the possibilities for how we feel about ourselves are endless. Think of the important question: What would you do if you knew you could not fail? In this instance, there is no failure daily in the nature play or forest school experience.

Sound judgement: As children make decisions and learn the value of taking calculated risks (see Risk Taking below) they develop a sense of sound judgement about their own abilities and boundaries. Climbing a tree and testing branches involves taking risks. Assessing which branches will hold you and which aren’t sturdy enough to bear your weight require the development of sound judgement.

Cooperation: Building forts, recreating “Bug Hotels,” damning creeks, and many other projects children undertake during the course of nature play foster collaboration and cooperation. Children learn the give and take of ideas and solutions for problems. As they grow closer in community and learn that everyone is heard and all ideas are valued, they realize that even if their strategy isn’t used in a particular situation, there will be other opportunities.

Leadership: Because children create many of their own projects, they are often source of leadership for them as well. Opportunities to learn how to lead abound daily. Adults serve as guides and resources, not the leaders – making room for the children to learn this important skill.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Adaptability: If children aren’t learning adaptability through project-based learning, they certainly are observing it through the lessons of nature. Studying animals that have adapted through camouflage or migration reminds them that living things must learn to observe the world around them and watch for the need to make changes. In nature, the inability to do so often leads to life and death consequences – for humanity, it leads to frustration.

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 training 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.