Even though I was raised in the heart of Detroit, I can clearly remember the role nature played in my life. My neighborhood friends and I made vats of mud and splatted it on the sidewalk to make giant outside board games. Honeysuckle wove through the metal links of our fence and the memory of the smell and taste can still bring a smile to my face. When school was out, my brother and I spent entire days exploring the world in our backyard.
Now, I am not one of those people that yearn for “the good old days” and think that kids of yesteryear have it any better or worse than those of today. But I do notice and worry about how little time children today spend in nature. I have made the case in my book and in past writings that this can be a contributing factor to challenging behaviors.
Apparently, I am not the only one who has spent time thinking about these things. Richard Louv, author of the book, Last Child in the Woods (if you haven’t read it – I recommend it), makes the case that it is a lack of connection with the natural world that is contributing to the rise in conditions such as ADHD. In his book, the author points out that even when many children are outside, that time is often spent in structured activities (like soccer or T-ball) or in developed areas (like playgrounds). He contends that the natural world provides benefits to all domains of children’s development that just aren’t found anywhere else.
So, in this world of “shelter in place” and homeschooling, how can we provide children with this invaluable connection to the natural world? Luckily, as many people remind us, nature and outside are not cancelled. So, as we interact with children, we can take the inside out and bring the outside in.
Taking the inside out:
- In some ways, the cancellation of so many events may provide us with a golden opportunity to expand children’s contact with nature. Keep soccer on the calendar and when that time comes, resolve to spend time outside as a family. Just explore the natural world that lives beyond your back door. Roll in the grass, smell the leaves, collect the sticks or stones. Follow your child’s lead as they interact with nature; or, just sit back and watch the unstructured play.
- There are many routine activities that can move outside; story time, meals, rest time, and homework are just as easily done outside and in the house. Look for creative ways to transfer traditionally inside activities to the great outdoors.
- The outside world can also host many learning activities. Nature scavenger hunts build literacy and scientific knowledge. Building collections allows children to put math and science into action. There is lots of learning to be had as one explores the world.
- Pose challenges for your child. For example, if you were a bird and had to build a nest with items you could only find in the yard, what would you use? Some of these challenges many last all week – this is a form of project-based learning that has great benefits for critical-thinking and problem-solving.
The more time you spend outside, the better it will be for your mental health as well as that of your child. There is so much learning that happens as children engage in free play; especially when it is outside. You can support this learning by allowing it to happen and by talking with your child about their experiences (by asking open-ended questions) and encouraging them to reflect by journaling and making up stories about their adventures.
Of course, there are people that don’t have yards; or even access to a private outside space. Some of the activities can be facilitated as you walk around the neighborhood. If outside is truly not a place where you can spend time, you will just have to create natural experiences inside the house.
Bringing the outside in:
- Spread out an old shower curtain or sheet and bring in natural items (soil, grass, leaves, stones, etc.) for children to explore.
- Start an herb garden. Many herbs can grow with limited soil and don’t take up a lot of space. Invite children to journal about how the plants change from week to week.
- Replace plastic toy pieces with natural items. For example, small stones can be used for tic-tac-toe or checkers.
- Create a loose parts corner in your home. You can collect natural items that children can use to build, tinker, or create art.
- Challenge children with “window scavenger hunts”. Give them five objects (a brown bird, a green leaf, etc.) to find each day. Or you can create observational charts. For example, keep track of the birds you see through the window and make a chart to show the colors of the birds you saw.
Contact with the natural world is so important for your child’s well-being, and it has lots of benefits for you as well. So, as you adjust to this new normal and create a schedule to structure your family’s time; make sure to block off some time for that good old vitamin D.
What do you think? Engage with me and others in the ECE community on my social media outlets. You can also find more information about my book and available training sessions, on any of the following:
Facebook: Teacher as Gardener
LinkedIn: Michelle Salcedo
My book Uncover the Roots of Challenging Behavior can be purchased at Free Spirit Publishing or Amazon
Interested in hearing more? Consider bringing me in as a speaker for your next Professional Development event (you won’t regret it).