Incorporating Nature in Child Development

This blog post is focused on providing parents and educators with information relevant to the benefits of incorporating nature into child development, as well as practical ways to accomplish just that.

What are the benefits of incorporating nature into a child’s learning experiences?

The research is clear, incorporating nature in a child’s learning experiences is extremely beneficial for their development. According to the Natural Learning Initiative, outdoor learning experiences benefit children in the following ways:

  • Support Multiple Development Domains: Playing and learning in nature develops children intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically.
  • Increases physical activity: Being outside provides children with the opportunity to move around and be active, which is much harder to do indoors.  Physical activity improves cognitive function while also helping children stay healthy and maintain a normal weight. The United States finds itself in a childhood obesity epidemic. The good news is that this can be lessened in severity by incorporating more outdoor play and learning for all children.
  • Reduce Stress: Children are increasingly facing stress, which can come in various forms and manifest itself in various ways. Too much stress negatively affects child development and can lessen their happiness. Outdoor play and learning reduces stress. Green plants, natural landscapes, and water all produce a calming effect in children.
  • Enhances problem solving skills: Research shows that children engage in more creative forms of play outdoors, which leads to increased usage of problem solving skills. In a complex and ever-evolving world, problem solving skills will always be necessary skills to develop.

Why is it important to teach a love of nature?

Children and adults interact with the natural world every day.  It is where we make our lives, and it contains the water we drink, the land on which we plant our feet, and the air we breath.  Teaching children to love nature will as a result teach them to value it. To value nature is to take steps to conserve it, something society increasingly needs.

According to the National Wildlife Federation: “Cornell University found that children who spend significant amounts of time immersed in nature and the outdoors such as camping, hiking, or other nature activities in their younger years are more incline to be conservationists or at least be conservation-minded as adults.”

What if going outside isn’t a readily available option due to weather or other circumstances?

While it is encouraged that children get outside to play and learn, it is not always an option. Wisconsin winters and wet springs can make outdoor play next to impossible.  Here are some resources for how you can incorporate nature indoors.

  • Bring nature inside, by putting outdoor materials (leaves, pine cones, dirt, sticks, wood chips, etc.) into a sensory bin.  Let the children explore these materials.
  • Utilize natural materials in art projects. Check out some ideas on Pinterest.
  • Work with children to grow small plants. The act of tending to a growing plant and watching it grow will foster an appreciation of nature in children. Also, the plant will make nearby air cleaner.
  • Use rocks and other natural materials to create bugs!
  • Incorporate the usage of real (washed) fresh foods into the the Kitchen Play Domain Area. Make sure to compost or otherwise use the food. Allowing children to play with real food, especially healthy food will strengthen their connection to it, and associate positive feelings towards it.

What are some of the misconceptions about incorporating nature into education?

  • Teachers need to be “nature-loving hippies”: For children to receive the ample benefits of interacting with nature, their teachers neither need to be outdoors experts, or tree-huggers. All they must simply do is embrace the outdoors, and provide children with the opportunities to do the same. No additional experience is necessary.
  • Kids need to be outside all day to receive the benefits of nature interaction: The American Heart Association recommends that children above the age of two years old get 60 minutes of physical activity per day. For the sake of their health, it is best to get them outdoors! In our day and age, it is unrealistic for most kids to spend entire days outside; there are other priorities in our lives.  If 60 minutes at one time seems daunting as a parent or educator, go outside for ten minutes at a time. By doing this you are allowing a child to burn off energy, and interact with the natural world.
  • Outdoor learning is expensive and requires travel: Outdoor learning is free. To receive the benefits of engaging with the natural world, all we have to do is step outside, onto our playgrounds and backgrounds. When we visualize engaging with nature we think about mountains, oceans, and forests, which brings up the idea of travel. We don’t need to travel, the natural world is all around us. Embrace it.

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