Play is the work of childhood, and it is the process of play that moves children forward in development and ignites their love for learning. The opportunity to play inspires children to move, to think, to discuss, to experiment, to fail and recover, to succeed and extend, to form relationships, to engage, to empathize, to cooperate, to lead, to collaborate, to create, to live. Without play, the intellectual lives of children become stagnant.
Play is enhanced by opportunities that are outdoors, in the natural world. Children who play in natural spaces play more, play with more friends, and play with less conflict. Children working in “outdoor classrooms” demonstrate decreases in distractibility, increases in attention to task, and increases in concentration and success with problem solving.
Outdoor learning spaces provide instructional space that provides more open-ended cognitive challenges. Nature presents many novel problems that stimulate children’s thinking:
- how to water the middle of the garden
- how to drain the puddle on the slide,
- what to think of the new chrysalis on the butterfly bush,
- what can be discovered while digging in the dirt, or
- how to negotiate uneven terrain.
Nature also allows more opportunity for childhood activities that are:
- messy (mud, paint, bubbles),
- loud (shrieking, drumming, hammering) and
- ebullient (dancing, flailing, gesticulating).
Playing outdoors also promotes positive social behavior and increases complexity of child-created activities such as obstacle courses, mock-work routines, and play scripts.
In nature children tend to spend their time:
- reflecting and thinking instead of waiting for stimulation
- discovering and learning instead of being told and shown
- doing and experiencing instead of watching and owning.
We have consciously moved away from commercial structures and surfaces that look inviting at first but are actually quite sterile and narrowing for children’s play. Instead we have created natural learning environments that are more suited to the natural play of children and that encourage them to engage in the physical world with their bodies, minds, hearts, and friends.