Fresh air, free play and focused minds

nature play

In August 2018, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a report encouraging doctors to prescribe uninterrupted playtime for children.

The reasons for these measures are indeed concerning. Studies show that from about 1955, there has been a constant decline in children’s free playtime, partly because adults have exerted ever-increasing control over children’s activities. Another report, Crisis in the Kindergarten, calls the decreased time for play in early childhood “a tragedy, both for the children themselves and for our nation and world” (Alliance for Childhood, 2009, p.8).

Countering this trend in Australia, the Early Years Learning Framework emphasises the importance of play as “a context for learning that allows for the expression of personality and uniqueness, enhances dispositions such as curiosity and creativity, enables children to make connections between prior experiences and new learning, assists children to develop relationships and concepts and stimulates a sense of wellbeing (EYLF, 2009, p.10)”. There seems to be no doubt about the relevance of child-led learning experiences across the Australian early childhood sector, although the urge to design children’s environments from an adult’s perspective and to construct a tight scaffold around our children’s daily life has spread across all areas of education.

I often think about the complex role of early childhood educators and teachers and wonder how much guidance children need to be safe. How much freedom do they need to flourish?

During a recent visit to Germany, I was intrigued by my friend’s descriptions of her four-year-old’s routine at a forest kindergarten. As a fan of outdoor play – probably kindled by memories from my own childhood – I excitedly took in every word. Every morning, the children decide collectively which of the four designated areas in the nearby forest they will visit. Taking only scissors and string, the children use natural materials to build and create, which means that they don’t produce any waste. Depending on the weather and season, the children play with the natural materials available to them. Their play is shaped by their own ideas but is experienced in collaboration with the educators.

The educational approach of the forest kindergarten is based on the concepts of inquiry-based learning and nature pedagogy. These practices help educators evaluate their role in the children’s learning journey and encourage a change in perspective from a “philosophy of protection towards a philosophy of resilience” (Tim Gill, 2007). Inquiry-based learning respects children as competent and self-sufficient learners who actively shape their own development. As a result, the educator takes on the role of a facilitator who creates a nurturing and collaborative setting allowing authentic, child-led learning experiences.

My friend, who is an advocate of free outdoor play like me, has observed in her own child some well-known benefits of outdoor play, such as the development of environmental awareness. She has also witnessed that increased opportunity for boredom can lead to big questions and exciting discoveries.

In our STEM Hour webinar on Nature play, two educators shared their experiences with setting up and running nature programs. One of the services is even located in the middle of the city, proving that determination will get you there. Have a look around your area, speak to parents and the local community and just get started! There are also plenty of resources available if you need some more support in setting up your own program.

Resources

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Article author: Heike Hendershot
National Training Manager

Heike manages the development of our workshop content and supports our training facilitators. A critical thinker with the ability to wonder, she believes in honouring each child’s individual skills and abilities.

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