By Hedda Sharapan
It’s summertime, and that means more time outdoors. But often for children, outdoor time means time on the playground with a sandbox, slide and swings. Now that I’ve read Last Child in the Woods by Richard Louv, I realize how different that kind of outdoor time is from time in nature.
In his book, Louv talks about the benefits of outdoor play in nature, and then he focuses on the harmful effects when children don’t have that kind of free time to explore, discover and just “hang out” in natural surroundings. He’s coined the term “nature deficit disorder” and makes a convincing research-based case for its connection with obesity, attention disorders and depression. He argues that “…just as children need good nutrition and adequate sleep, they may very well need contact with nature.” Louv’s perspective has made many of us in early childhood realize that we have to find a way to offer outdoor time that’s nature-based.
Here are some ways you can enrich outdoor time in nature:
Start small – Exploring in nature doesn’t have to mean taking the children to a field or forest. You can start with the strip of grass in front of your child care or at the side of the playground, the trees you see on a walk around the block or the weeds growing in the crack of the sidewalk.
Offer tools – Even a simple tool like a magnifying glass takes some practice. Start indoors with a small group of children and give them a chance to use the magnifying glass to look at something familiar, like a favorite picture book or a small toy. Help them practice adjusting how close or far to hold the magnifier so that it will enlarge what they’re looking at. When you’re outdoors, suggest the children look closely with a magnifying glass at things like stones, tree bark, leaves, grass, ants and other bugs. You could also offer some other simple tools, like a spade or spoon for digging and a bucket for collecting things.
Make it quiet time – Children need quiet time to explore. If we’re constantly talking and pointing out things we want them to notice, we may interfere with their own discoveries.
Encourage children to describe what they see – When the activity is over, ask the children to tell you what they saw (unless the children have been already talking about it on their own!) Do they have any questions? Even if you don’t have answers, it’s important to let children know their questions are important. You could write the question on a piece of paper to put in an “Ask-it basket.” You can even give them some crayons and paper outdoors to draw what they’re seeing.
Make connections – When the activity is over, ask the children if they can connect what they’re seeing in nature to other things they know or have read about. You might also want to read books that have something to do with nature, like “Everybody Needs a Rock” or “The Very Hungry Caterpillar” or even “Jack and the Beanstalk.”
Model respecting nature – On this video, one of the girls cautioned, “Don’t touch it. It’s going to grow into a bell pepper.” It’s a great reminder that while we do want children to be curious, we also want them to be respectful of things in the natural environment.
Share your enthusiasm -- Remember, too, that the other important “tool” for outside exploration is your interest in the leaves, the bark of trees, the clouds, the bugs, the stones. One of Fred Rogers’ favorite sayings was “Attitudes are caught, not taught.” It’s contagious when children see that you appreciate simple things in nature. You’ll be nurturing their curiosity and fueling their interest in learning about science – and the world around them.
It often takes just a simple tool and a focused activity to help children see “going outdoors” as more than “playground time.” With those kinds of small steps, we’ll be helping children think of nature as a place they’ll want to keep on exploring as they grow.
This post is excerpted from the monthly e-newsletter written by Hedda Sharapan, Director of Early Childhood Education for The Fred Rogers Company. You can subscribe to the newsletter here.