Offering children plentiful opportunities to immerse themselves in the great outdoors is a wonderful way to boost wellbeing, says Alexia Barrable…
It’s a dark early morning in midwinter, and the wind is howling. Yet the children, dressed in several layers and donning hats, scarves and gloves, cannot wait to get out! They’ve made little boats with the sticks and leaves they picked up last week, and they are eager to try them out in the puddles that have formed in the small outdoor space outside the nursery. Sound familiar?
There is mounting evidence that being in contact with nature is beneficial for our physical and mental health. As little as 20 minutes in a natural environment can lower our stress levels, while simply having flowers or a green plant in the same room as us can have a marked effect on our physiological stress response.
Put simply, contact with nature is good for our wellbeing! And there is more: young children who spend more time in nature have been found to have better attention spans, be less hyperactive and exhibit more prosocial behaviours.
And yet, it is not simply contact with nature that is important, although that is a great starting point.
Our connection to nature, how much we feel we are a part of the natural world, has been closely associated with wellbeing, as well as looking after the environment.
By nurturing our young children’s feeling of connection to nature we can have happier children and save the planet at the same time! Part of my work aims to make nature connection a distinct goal of early childhood education (you can read more about it here).
Recent research suggests that it takes more than just contact to build this relationship. Engaging the senses to notice the beauty in nature, through touch, smell, taste or sound; feeling compassion or looking after plants or animals and finding meaning in nature can be crucial to building this connection.
Thinking of your practice, regardless of where you are, how can you engage children with the natural world in a meaningful way? And where do you start if you don’t have access to wild woods or open fields?
Urban nature, the plants and animals that live beside us in cities, can be a great starting point. Start by simply noticing and noting. Share your observations with children, and let them share theirs with you. Note the changes in the weather, in the seasons, in the plants and animals that we share the urban jungle with. Enjoy different types of weather: the wind, rain or hail can bring a very different sensory experience for young children. Do so mindfully and with intent!
Plant and tend to indoor plants – share the awe of a seed germinating. Keep a pet (make it an easy one to look after – a pet snail or an ant farm perhaps?) and have children share in its care, or ask children to share their stories and experiences with their own pets from home.
Use whatever outdoor space you have and make it as natural as possible – plants, grass, soil and sand can be a great resource for imaginative play. If you don’t have your own outdoor space, plan regular outings to the local park. It is important that you use the same space each time, so that children develop familiarity with the area and use the continuity to develop their physical skills of climbing, running and jumping. Use the same space to note changes too – the falling leaves, the new ducklings – all of these can help children develop a close relationship with one natural space, and a love and appreciation for the whole of the natural world.
Finally, although there are many activities that we can plan to engage children with the natural world in the early years, there is one that seems to be far superior – free, child-led nature play! Give children the time and space to engage with nature on their own terms. Allow children to hide, rest and simply be in nature. Give them the opportunity and then let them take the lead in developing this relationship that will benefit them, and, in the long run, our planet too!
To help nurture a love of nature in early childhood, try these simple strategies…
Alexia Barrable is a lecturer in education at the University of Dundee and conducts research on nature connection and early childhood. Her book Growing Up Wild (Little, Brown, £13.99) documents the importance of our relationship with the natural world and ways to enhance our connection to nature.