The Benefits of Natural Learning

The “Winter Blues” hit me hard this year. I’ve resolved to spend more time outdoors, regardless of the weather. We’ve already purchased a full rain suit in anticipation of the wet spring months headed our way, and next winter we will be stocking up on wool-merino clothing because staying indoors for days, or even weeks, on end is simply not healthy.

The fresh air is therapeutic for both me and, even more so, my daughter. She is calm, focused and completely at ease with herself outdoors. The change in behavior is remarkable. It’s no wonder forest schools are becoming so popular — kids desperately want and need to explore Mother Nature’s playground. This doesn’t take into account the numerous health benefits associated with unstructured outdoor play time.

And who could ask for a better learning environment? Being outdoors in nature provides a remarkably rich sensory experience and is bursting with loose parts that are great for open-ended creative play.the-geography-of-childhood-wild-places

One of the greatest benefits to an outdoor classroom is it’s free. Trust me, you do not need to invest in any expensive or fancy outdoor play equipment as society will often lead you to believe. Simply head out to your backyard or visit a public park and observe as you allow your child to freely (and safely) explore the natural environment. At the moment, the only things we have in the way of outdoor “toys” are a water table, which is now lovingly referred to as her “tinkering table” since it’s being used as a bin for all the treasures she finds scattered throughout the yard.

Collecting walnuts challenges her to critically think about how many she can carry at one time. Here, she is learning about classification, concept of number, and flexibility in thinking.
Collecting walnuts challenges her to critically think about how many she can carry at one time. Here, she is learning about classification, concept of number, and flexibility in thinking.

We spent the day outside yesterday, and I sat down on our front porch and simply watched as my daughter engaged in self-directed, purposeful work. First, she discovered a sycamore pod. “Spikey,” she told me. Then she began collecting walnuts that had fallen from a nearby tree. “Squirrel eat,” she recalled as she held one up to show me. She began transferring them to the porch near where I was sitting. It took her awhile, as she had to pay close attention to how many were in her hands – several would drop as she’d bend down to pick up another one. She demonstrated flexibility in thinking as she had to adjust how to carry them against her body. After she would dump a handful onto the porch, she’d pick them up – one by one – and count how many she had collected.

Carefully counting walnuts as she works to balance the bundle in her hands.
Carefully counting walnuts as she works to balance the bundle in her hands.

In all, she spent about 30 minutes collecting, transferring, and counting walnuts. Next she was ready for some gross motor play. For the past few weeks, jumping has been a much-loved exercise. She loves to challenge herself by jumping both on and off items in her natural environment – the porch step, a bag of mulch, into a flowerbed. “Mama, jump!,” she says as she invites me to play alongside her. Jumping was followed by several games of “Ring Around the Rosie.” She likes to experience being dizzy, and this simple game is one of her most-loved activities we do each day.

Free as a bird, she is able to engage in gross motor play when her body requires it.
Free as a bird, she is able to engage in gross motor play when her body requires it.

She soon discovered a “stick” — the flexible stem from a sycamore pod. She sat down on the grass to further examine it. First, she held it like a paintbrush and began making wide strokes on her jeans. Then she pretended she had a pencil and proudly exclaimed, “Write! I write.” No more than 5 minutes later, the sycamore pod stem had become a makeup brush as I noticed she was pretending to apply blush and eye makeup to her face. This type of symbolic play is an important part of cognitive development since representational thought is directly linked to literacy and other academic skills.

Symbolic play demonstrates representational thinking, an important precursor to literacy and other academic skills.
Symbolic play demonstrates representational thinking, an important precursor to literacy and other academic skills.

When it comes to play, simple is better. Please, do not feel guilty about not spending hundreds of dollars (or in some cases even more) on “educational toys.”

At least not when you have a classroom full of natural learning materials beckoning children outdoors.

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