Michele Rivest opened up Tuesday’s Faith Initiative Lunch & Learn, “Connecting Children to Nature in Faith Settings,” by asking participants what favorite outdoor activities they remembered from childhood. Rivest, who is the Early Childhood Education Coordinator with the Natural Learning Initiative, says that today’s children are no longer having the same outdoor experiences as generations past. Many children are experiencing what experts call “Nature Deficit Disorder,” in that they have a general lack of outdoor contact. Exacerbating that deficiency is the fact that historically, the outdoors haven’t been thought of as a valuable place for learning.
Research shows that children who spend more time in the outdoors achieve longer spans of concentration, have fewer illnesses, have better gross motor development, and experience more diverse play activities. According to Rivest, the benefits of nature play include: holistic child development; opportunities for math, reading, science and art; increased curiosity and creativity; a nurtured sense of wonder about the world; and a learned respect for living things.
Here are some suggestions for how to bring nature back in a meaningful way, specifically on playgrounds and outdoor learning environments:
- Add natural elements into the playground landscape, things such as shrubs, groundcover, logs, rocks, and sand. This can be done at very low cost and research shows that playgrounds are most effective when they offer a mix of both natural elements and artificial playground equipment.
- Plants and shrubs attract birds, butterflies and insects that foster a love for science.
- Adding edible plants increases healthy nutrition options as well as an understanding about local food sources. Kids will at least try things they’ve been growing themselves (green beans, peas, etc).
- Logs and wood items can be used as benches, balance beams, cookie stepping stones, and toddler pull-up bars.
- Rocks and boulders are great for climbing, balancing, path edging and active science play.
- Sand provides countless opportunities for digging, measuring, exploring, carrying, and moving. If you implement a sandbox, try to include comfortable benches around the perimeter so that adults will have a place to sit.
- Water can be a great addition to the playground. By adding a hose to an arbor, you can create a simple misting station for hot days.
- Let children take monthly “field trips” around the center to hunt for and collect loose parts such as leaves, twigs, pinecones, and acorns.
Check out some footage from Lunch & Learn participants:
Above: Lunch and Learn participant Dorothy Graham (a leader in early care and education in Durham County and statewide for more than 25 years and currently a Friends of State Parks board member), shares her favorite childhood memory of playing outdoors.
Above: Lunch and Learn participant Nancy Rozak, Director of Christian Education at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Durham, talks about the intergenerational garden developed by the church, which is an exemplary model of engaging youth in the outdoors. Both children and adults help to grow and maintain the garden, while proceeds from garden sales go to the Food Bank of NC. Sales have generated $5,000 since the garden was implemented three years ago.
Durham’s Early Childhood Faith Initiative is a collaboration between End Poverty Durham and Durham’s Partnership for Children. The Faith Initiative is supported by donations from individuals, multiple local congregations, through Duke’s Community Care Fund, the A.J. Fletcher Foundation, the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, and the Walmart Foundation. For more information, please contact the Partnership at (919) 403-6960 or visit www.dpfc.net/EarlyChildhoodFaithInitiative.aspx or www.endpovertydurham.org.