We’re thrilled to announce a new partnership with Powder Springs Library to provide nature education to children. Our first event will be our Autumn’s All Around PlayShop, designed for preschool aged children. The Powder Springs Library has beautiful grounds that we’ll use to our advantage as we use our senses to experience the arrival of Autumn.
Children will enjoy free-play at Nature Discovery Centers where they can explore the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the season. We’ll enjoy a story together and then complete a craft and activity. This is a great opportunity to check out some books to get your preschool age child interested in the natural world as they observe the change of seasons.
Meet us in the courtyard at 11:30am for play and nature fun!
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.
During my last week as a “mainstream preschool educator” I had an experience that solidified my decision that now is the time to start living and teaching the values I hold dear.
Let me begin by saying I truly esteem the ideology and curriculum of the organization I had been working with for several years. While I won’t mention them by name, many of my close followers will know which institution I mean, which only mirrors the best practices of many early childhood education centers. It is not this particular center that got “under my skin,” but rather the nature (no pun intended) of practical circumstances and concerns that lead them to teach under the restrictions they do.
On the playground with a group of three and four year olds for one of our 45 minute outdoor play sessions for the day, we were encountering nature. It had been a part of the curriculum that month to learn about life cycle of plants, what things are living and non-living, and about the change of seasons. The children were well versed in terms like roots, stem, leaf, and flower. They could tell you that living things need proper habitats. They know that plants needs air, water and light to grow. They had diagrammed and drawn out this process several times and I had even brought in some plants from my garden (non-toxic of course) for them to observe.
Just the day before, our lesson plan called for us to take them onto the playground to observe a plant up-close. Just the other side of the fence, honey suckle grew in profusion and the children enjoyed touching it as we pulled it through the chain link fence that encloses our play area. Their faces lit up when they realized that it was this small flower that they’d been smelling for a week or more as they played. They could correctly identify all the parts of the plant, pictures were taken to document the activity and send home to mom and dad. Lesson successful. Until the next day….
Upon going out on the playground where did every single child (and I mean all 27 children) gravitate to immediately? Well to the honey suckle of course! Just yesterday it had been the focus of our lesson. We, the teachers, had pulled it through the fence ourselves for observation! But now the children heard from each adult a constant barrage of, “Don’t touch the nature!” Safety guidelines, you see, prohibit us from allowing children to engage with sticks, leaves, vines, wood chips, dirt or other forms of the playscape.
The children were genuinely confused; and as versed as I am in the Safe School Guidelines, I have to say I was instantly irritated. We want them to learn about these things in isolation? What happened to experiential learning? Learning through play? Or even the goals of yesterday’s lesson?
Later that afternoon for the last half of their outdoor play, they knew better than to touch the items on the other side of the fence. I caught two or three of them, instead staring straight up into the boughs of a pine tree. They started to scatter until they saw it was me (they’d already sensed that I could not betray my value system I guess) and then asked, “What is that?”
I was confused. They know what trees are. Pine trees are not exotic or rare in Georgia. I laughed and decided to play along thinking they were teasing me. “Well, I don’t know. What do you think it is?” A few more joined the sky gazing group. One boy said, “It looks like a tree but those aren’t leaves so we think we must be wrong.”
It was then that I honestly realized that they were confused because of the pine needles at the end of the branches. Without exerting much effort, I reached up and pulled the branch low enough for them to touch it. Casting wary glances over their shoulders, they approached the branch. One little girl said, “It looks ouchie. Can we touch it? Is it safe?” I pulled a few needles free and began observing them with the children. By now there were fifteen of them all gathered around. The smelled the needles, touched the length and pointed ends, and then smelled them!
In what has become a classic work called Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes, “Within the space of a few decades, the way children experience nature has changed radically….Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.”
Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment – but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature is fading.”
Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods
It wasn’t long before we were found out and the contraband pine needles I had handed them were disposed of by another teacher over the fence for safety’s sake. But for well over ten minutes, we escaped to a place where we could use all of our senses to learn that this was a tree and that there were lots of them just like this all around us. We talked about what it meant to be evergreen and I asked if any of them had Christmas trees in their homes that reminded them of this tree. I think we could have gone on talking for a long time.
As we gathered them in to go back inside, I caught one boy steal a last glance over his shoulder at the pine that had extended it’s graceful limb over our play space. I hope that he spends the next two weeks jumping as high as he can to try and reach that branch. And I pray some kind soul will let him smell the pines once again before he loses interest.
Welcome to Sparrow’s Nest Play! This dream seems a long time in coming to fruition, but at the same time a little bit like randomly jumping off a cliff. My hope and dream has long been to offer a place (or places) of peace for children in today’s violent, busy, and consumer oriented world. Small people can easily get lost in the “rat race.” Even more tragic, experiences that were once common among children during their development are now viewed as “fringe,” “niche,” or even “liberal.”
There is something inherent in us that wants to inspect and wonder. It is easily recognizable in the preschool aged children with which I have worked. But somewhere along the way, wonder and creativity get stifled and suppressed by standards and expectations which are far outside the natural interest of many children.
One such child I had the joy of teaching was Peyton, who simply could not imagine playground
time without sitting in a pile of wood chips rearranging them to his personal liking. He used any tool he could find to move the chips – toys, cups, spoons and other objects from our dramatic play – he just had to be digging and touching and exploring the dirt. He would come in filthy and almost require a good bathing before we could continue our learning each day. Thankfully, his mother knew of his predilection and always packed additional clothing for this purpose.
The problem? Our policy absolutely forbade the children to touch or play with wood chips in any way. One might ask, “Then why cover the playground in 3 inches of them?” As is common, this policy was the result of a lawsuit that had been filed in another center where a child had an eye injury from a wood chip thrown by another child, costing the center many thousands of dollars in settlement. Thus, it became standard policy to have be “hands off” concerning the wood chips. Similarly, they were to be discouraged from touching sticks, dirt, leaves, pine cones and any other natural debris on the playground–all things children were made to play with.
This is one example of many where I’ve seen children eager to immerse themselves in nature only to be told that nature is too dangerous and a safety liability. I witness them trying to find ways to make playground equipment move more than it does or to find heights to jump from each day, only to be told that trying this isn’t safe. As the children turn aside from reprimand, I feel like we’ve killed something natural and beautiful inside them. I always wonder if it will reemerge or if that was its last natural occurrence, and like the last thing living of its species have we doomed wonder to extinction.
And then once inside the “safety” of our classroom once again, these same children display anxiety at risk taking – just unguided but supervised play that encourages them to “see what happens if…”. Sometimes, I think that because I’ve had to tell them so many times “We don’t do that because it isn’t safe” they see danger around corners where there is none.
Sparrow’s Nest Play is a place to investigate and wonder and learn using all of those natural, God-given curiosities. With supervision and caution, teaching a child to use their senses to explore the world around them is highly beneficial to their development. But it takes intentionality. If we need to have a time of digging in the dirt, let’s provide a safe space to do so, tools to assist and an appropriate place to clean up afterwards. And let’s teach about what healthy soil is while we are doing it so we don’t waste this learning opportunity!
But more than just nature play, Sparrow’s Nest Play seeks to cultivate curiosity about our world and our place in it. We ask questions like:
Where does food come from? Who grows our food?
What does a healthy world look like? How did it get unhealthy?
What is our responsibility in caring for creation?
How should I treat my fellow human beings as we share resources?
How can I promote peace with creation and with humanity?
One day we hope to have After School Programs and Day Camps, in order to provide not just education, but experiences and a community for children to explore these questions and many more. For now we’ll be creating online curriculum and content with the hope toward partnering with small groups of like-minded individuals. Join us in our journey at Sparrow’s Nest Play. subscribe to our blog and stay up-to-date with our journey toward getting our 501-C3 designation soon!