Exploring nature and learning through play
Posted on 06.27.2014, Friday

By: Winnie Morgan, Faith Initiative Coordinator at Durham’s Partnership for Children

As an adult, what do you remember about your early play experiences? I immediately think of the creek where we made dams and bridges with a variety of material laid across the water, the woods where we played “house” by creating rooms with stick boundaries, and riding bikes to our neighbor’s house (which was not close in the country!). Recently I had the opportunity to see the outdoor learning space at First Environments Early Learning Environment, a child development center that serves the Environmental Protection AgencyNational Institutes of Environmental Health and Science, and their contractors.

It made me want to be a child again: to play, to explore, to create, to test my physical ability, to find a quiet space for my friend and me. Any observer could see this happening in this outdoor learning space as children made mud pies; sat under the shade of a tree sharing a popsicle with a friend; climbed and balanced on ropes strung from trees; and toddlers sat in sand piles just feeling the sand. It was amazing! And it was so energizing, not only for the children but for adults as well. Brains and muscles were SO engaged in every direction of the space as children learned on their own based on just the environment.

Outdoor experiences encourage imagination, creativity and a sense of wonder. How does that butterfly ever come from a caterpillar? What does a butterfly eat? Can I “fly” like a butterfly? One does not need an advanced degree to figure out how to enjoy the outdoors with children. Just do it! You will develop future citizens that want to be stewards of this earth, and you will help improve their physical, social and emotional, and overall wellbeing.What has happened over the generations that exploring the outdoors and spontaneous play don’t happen naturally in a child’s life? Research shows that the average American child spends 44 hours per week with electronic media. Another statement I heard recently at the Reading ROCks workshop is that a child has spent enough time watching TV before they start school that they could have completed a college degree. WOW! And we wonder why our children are not as healthy or fit as generations past, or why they cannot entertain themselves without a gadget or a purchased toy?

When I visit my 4 year old grandson, our adventures are always outside no matter what the season or weather is – we just adapt with clothing! Our favorite place is a park with a bamboo forest that has rock ledges where we always climb to the top. It is our place: a place where we can be creative as we pretend to be explorers, and a place that always stimulates our sense of wonder. Do you include fun nature experiences in the life of your children and grandchildren or in the life of the children that attend your child care center? If not, why not?

To help you get started, this Sunday, June 29th is International Mud Day, when children all over the world will join together to enjoy one of the best investigation and invention materials available—mud! There’s no better time than now to go outside and learn!