This is the sixth in a series of blogs highlighting “Growing with Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms.” Contributors include Dimensions Educational Research Foundation executive director Nancy Rosenow and members of the Nature Explore education team.
“The importance of movement thinking should not be underestimated. If the six-year-old child does not have fundamental control over both general and discriminative movements, he will find it difficult, if not impossible, to move his eyes across the page, look up and down from the chalkboard to his paper, hold a pencil, or compete in play with his peers… If bodily movement is well under control, children can expend minimum energy on the physical mechanics of the task and maximum energy on the thinking related solution.” –Hans Furth and Harry Wachs, “Thinking Goes to School: Piaget’s Theory in Practice”
Active running, climbing and games are often associated with recess in school and backyard play at home. These experiences are important to physical health, but are only a part of overall physical development. In Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms—with their complete mix of activities—children have opportunities for comprehensive physical development. These include chances for multi-sensory learning, appropriate risk-taking through active play, real work, healthy eating and self-calming activities, all of which are essential for physical (and emotional) development.
One outcome of children’s disconnection from nature is lack of sensory stimulation. Increased time in sterile indoor environments, use of manufactured plastic toys, and earlier use of electronics all decrease opportunities for children to use all of their senses. Many educators are wondering if the growing rise in children identified with behavioral problems and sensory-processing disorders is linked to lack of consistent time outdoors. This first story illustrates the simple-yet-powerful sensory experiences that can be found in a Nature Explore classroom.
“Snow and winter weather changed the outside experiences for the children with the new scenery and terrain. The toddlers have been able to observe how the snow feels, what it looks like and sometimes how it tastes! The children love being outside in any weather, and for many of the children at this age, snow is a new experience in temperature, texture and mobility.” –Kaysha Brady, Toddler Teacher, Dimensions Early Education Programs
Just as an active lifestyle is beneficial for adults, children need active play to support healthy bodies. Natural outdoor spaces full provide that kind of play for young children, and these spaces become even more vital for older children who many spend most of their school day sitting in desks.
“In my advisory class this year, I had several of the athletes, the big, big boys. One day I brought them out to our Nature Explore Classroom for homeroom time and I said, “Okay. We’re just going to chill out here for a while.” Before too long they were playing leapfrog on the giant tree cookies that we had salvaged from a tree that came down on our site. All of the seventh grade boys were playing! It doesn’t matter that you’re thirteen and six foot one, or if you’re four and three feet high, they love this place and their bodies need it.” –Debbie Harris, K-8 Science Department Chair, St. Francis Episcopal Day School, Houston, Texas
When children are involved in the gardening and growing process, and understand where the food they eat comes from, healthy eating habits almost magically fall into place. Simple gardening activities engage children from planting and seeding to harvesting and cooking.
“Our experience with the school garden in the outdoor classroom has been invaluable. One of my students with autism, an extremely picky eater who would never touch fruits or vegetables, began to sample the fresh garden tomatoes, squash and other produce that he picked in the school garden.” –Tonia Liss, Special Education Teacher, Beard School, Chicago, Illinois
For overall well-being, children need changes of pace in physical activity throughout their day. Chances to quietly reflect and be calm are just as important as opportunities to be boisterous and active. Here’s an innovative approach to nap time undertaken by one early education program.
“Student teachers were skeptical when lab faculty proposed an experiment to move nap time outside when the weather was mild. They later reflected that the children were calm, and that even children who did not sleep were relaxed as they listened to the breeze move in the leaves overhead. For example, one child stated, “When we sleep outside it is better because the wind blows me to sleep.” Teachers also reported feeling more relaxed in the outdoor setting.” –Jenny Leeper Miller, Master Teacher, Ruth Staples Child Development Laboratory, University of Nebraska
Whether children are running, building or snoozing, activities that improve body competence can be found around every corner in Nature Explore Outdoor Classrooms. For many more inspiring stories that highlight physical skill development—and ideas that can be recreated in outdoor classrooms or family backyards— read “Growing with Nature”.