The natural world is one of the best environments for children to explore, absorb, and enjoy. When we expose young children to nature, they see the beauty just as we do and begin to interact with its offerings. Do you remember, when growing up, how much you enjoyed the beauty and wonder of a crisp fall morning, just as the leaves are changing from green to the many warm autumn colors? Do you recall how much you liked jumping in puddles, climbing on rocks, swinging from trees, picking things up, and spending hours in the outdoors, called in only for dinner or when the last rays of daylight disappeared?
The lives of children today are different. Children have few opportunities for outdoor free play and regular contact with the natural world. Several pieces of research on children and nature discuss the fading relationship between children and the environment. These researchers note children are exposed less and less to the open invitations of nature. Today’s children are on tight schedules with child care, school, and extracurricular activities. Even if children are outdoors, the activity is usually structured and not one of free adventure or immersion into nature.
Experts believe the window of opportunity for the formation of bonds with and positive attitudes towards the natural environment develops some time during early and middle childhood, and requires regular interaction with nearby nature. From a very early age, children are curious about the world around them.
As they learn and grow, experiencing nature with all of their senses is a critical part of their development. Exploration of the natural world allows young children to create a lasting attachment to the environment.
Nature provokes children into thought, action, and formulating their ideas. When children are involved in experiences with nature, they are absorbed and completely attentive to what is at hand. This exposure to nature can be simply going for a walk, playing in the yard, or hiking in the woods. There are many advantages to all types of exposure to nature. Natural materials such as pine cones, grass, rocks, leaves, rain, spider webs, sticks, frogs, fossils, dirt, seashells, pebbles, and sand provide endless possibilities for play and imagination. These materials don’t come with directions: The children come up with ideas of how to use them. What are they? What can they do? How do they feel? What do they look like? How does it move? How does it grow? What can I do with this?
Adults can help children to connect with nature by providing natural environments to explore and adding tools to enhance their explorations, such as digging tools, magnifying glasses, and other age appropriate related resources.
Nature can also be brought back to our homes or classrooms. Some early educators use many components of nature in their indoor environments. Tree stumps are used for sitting. Water, sand, and dirt are explored, measured, and poured. Tree branches are suspended from the ceiling and display children’s artwork. Loose materials, such as pinecones, stones, seashells, leaves, and twigs, are displayed in baskets for children’s imaginations to provide an idea.
Nature’s artifacts, such as feathers, a bug’s shell, fossils, or a bird’s nest, are used for exploring. Bringing nature to our homes and classrooms reinforces its beauty, purpose, and gifts.
Nature inspires physical challenges: climbing over a rock, walking up and or rolling down a hill, swinging from a branch, running freely, or scooping and digging dirt. Nature is a positive encourager to the physical well-being of children. What we have to do is to give them consistent contact and ample time to explore and enjoy.
Nature also provides us, children and adults, alike, with a sense of calm and visual images of beauty. Children become observant as they listen to leaves in the wind or look at spiders’ fancily woven webs, or hear the call of a bird.
Providing children opportunities to care for nature, such as watering plants, feeding animals, picking up trash, and treating “creatures” gently, supports a sense of respecting nature and developing empathy. It also creates opportunities for children to work together. Experiences such as these help build lifelong skills and give children a connection that may in the future support caring for their environment, as well as each other.