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The Importance of Nature and Learning Through Play

The early years of life were once a time when children were initiated into the art of exploring the natural world around them. Time spent outside was esteemed as a chance to allow the elements to imbue the soul with vivacious excitement. Nature was a place where children leapt into rapturous learning and merry movement. The importance of play was recognized.

Modern society has moved away from direct experiences in nature, causing detriment to children’s development. This can be seen in the home and at school. There has been an increase in time spent playing indoors with endocrine disrupting plastic toys and digitalized “educational” games and TV shows in both settings. Especially in schools there has been a move towards decreasing playtime to optimize the school day for academic work. This change has happened despite the numerous research studies demonstrating that children learn through play and not rigorous academic discipline.

Most children no longer have the opportunity to watch as jewel green caterpillars squirm across a flower or run through grass chasing after butterflies. What happened to the days when a child could dig through the dirt and find a squishy pink worm that tingled her palm as it inched around?

By recognizing the importance of play and nature you, as a guide, can begin offering your child opportunities to experience nature and learn through play. You can do this as a family by getting outside for nature walks, swimming, and peaceful picnics. There has also been an increase in schools that have a focus on getting children outside and developing curriculum for outdoor learning. Many are referred to as nature preschools or forest kindergartens but you will also see schools with unrelated philosophies promoting ample outdoor playtime.

The research that has been conducted with nature preschools and forest kindergartens is highly demonstrative of the amazing benefits children reap from time spent in nature. This post highlights some of these benefits from the perspective of education in a nature preschool or forest kindergarten. However, this information can be expanded to express the significance of all experiences in nature, regardless of if it occurs in a school setting.

I invite you to read these findings and allow them to nurture your decision to empower your child through free play in nature.

A Look at Nature Preschools

Children benefit in all domains of development from unstructured outdoor play and time spent in nature. Play in nature improves imagination, creativity, and helps promote the development of motor skills. Play and active engagement with nature enable children to learn concepts, experiment with roles, and develop a deeper understanding of the world around them.

This is exactly what nature preschools and forest kindergartens bring to the table; more free play and nature experiences. This approach to teaching happens out of the classroom and emphasizes the importance of play. Children are immersed in nature for the entire day. Nature becomes their classroom.

Nature preschools and forest kindergartens lay the foundation for future learning. Through manipulating and playing with nature, children are actively constructing new knowledge and improving their cognitive functions. By having the opportunity to explore their environment and act on their inherent curiosities and passions, positive development is progressed.

Bush Kinder

The development of a nature-based educational approach to preschool is founded on the vast amount of research that proves beneficial outcomes of such nature exposure for children. Elliot and Chancellor (2014) discuss the efficacy of the Bush Kinder Pilot Program in their article, From Forest Preschool to Bush Kinder: An Inspirational Approach to Preschool Provision in Australia. Such benefits include

“increased confidence, motivation and concentration, increased social, physical and language skills, deeper conceptual understandings and respect for the natural environment” Elliot and Chancellor (p. 46).

At Bush Kinder, the children displayed enhanced creativity and imaginative play. The children began taking time to reflect and converse with their peers. They demonstrated greater collaborative play and an increased ability to understand, respect, and support others. Children who previously had “quieter voices” were empowered. The children engaged in less gender stereotyped play and the children’s

“physical competence, stamina and awareness of space were enhanced over time” Elliot and Chancellor (p. 50).

Executive Functioning

Holly Korbey, a writer for parenting and education topics, reports in her article, Let ‘Em Out! The Many Benefits of Outdoor Play in Kindergarten, that psychologists at the University of Colorado discovered that children who experienced free play in nature had well-developed executive functioning.

Executive functioning is the control of cognitive processes and includes tasks such as reasoning, planning, and problem-solving. Executive functioning is vastly important in later school success and in the ability for task accomplishment.

Social Skills

Nature preschools and forest kindergartens allow children to build social skills that will help them throughout their life. Children who are allowed to play in nature develop prosocial skills, such as, sharing, helping, and cooperation. For example, by playing with others, working in groups, and helping to navigate rugged terrain, children learn how to interact with others appropriately. A group of children who come upon a patch of prickly cacti has to work together to safely get through.

Rethinking Risk

Nature preschools have an inherent element of risk that is foundational to children’s learning and development. In the article, Embracing Risk in the Canadian Woodlands: Four Children’s Risky Play and Risk-Taking Experiences in a Canadian Forest Kindergarten, Coe (2016) provides an in-depth analysis of four children’s risk play. Many adults view risk and danger synonymously and believe nature to be an unsafe environment for children.  However, Coe found that children derive meaningful and significant benefits from risk-taking. She asserts,

“Just as young children are attracted to the natural world, they too are enticed by the physical challenges and risk-taking experiences that such environments provide” Coe (p. 1).

Nature is the ideal environment in which such beneficial risky experiences can unfold, as there is natural variability in the landscape as well as flora and fauna that encourage children to explore the world.

Risk play offers an opportunity for children to master challenging tasks and gain a deeper understanding of their skills; this nurtures children’s self-efficacy, self-esteem, and overall social and emotional development. It also promotes an understanding of safety as the children experience first hand how to survive and thrive in the face of risk. Having a greater ability to engage effectively in risk play brings cognitive benefits as well. For example, children further develop their ability to concentrate, persevere, and motivate themselves to achieve.

Andrea Mills, mother and early childhood educator, reports from a study conducted in Switzerland’s University of Fribourg:

“In these ways, the forest kindergarten teaches children the care and skills necessary for safe independence, in turn bolstering their self-confidence.”

Early-Childhood Education Takes to the Outdoors

Obesity and Attention Disorders

As rates of obesity and diagnosed attention disorders skyrocket for young children it is important to look at where children spend a significant portion of their day. Korbey reports that the CDC recently found that American children are becoming increasingly unhealthy every year and are lacking the attention needed for learning. The CDC found that more than ten percent of children in school were diagnosed with attention disorders.

This highlights the importance of play in nature…

Nature is therapeutic

Connie Matthiessen, writer, editor, and mother of three, emphasizes that:

“Scientists at the University of Illinois’ Landscape and Human Health Laboratory, for example, found that time out of doors reduces symptoms in children with ADHD.”

Children and nature: who let the kids out?

Nature experiences provide children with attention disorders an environment in which they can thrive due to the healing effects nature holds.

Parenting Concerns

Concerned parents may make the argument that such an approach to teaching is not structured or educational enough. They may posit that children are not learning through unstructured free play in nature. However, research quickly discredits this position, Mills reports that,

“The forest kindergartners performed as well as conventional peers on fine motor skills and significantly better on tests of gross motor skills and creativity. The forest kindergartners were also able to offer more solutions to problems.”
Early-Childhood Education Takes to the Outdoors

Fine motor skills are skills such as drawing and writing, tasks that use the smaller more meticulous muscles in the body. Gross motor skills utilize the larger muscles in the body and include running and jumping.

Children learn through play. This research shows that not only are these children developing and learning at the same rate as others their age but they are actually out performing them in certain areas.

The Right of Every Child

Play and active exploration in nature are crucial for children. Children learn through play.

Deanna Fahey, a graduate student at Miami University, reports that the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights has identified play as a child’s right.

“Play is so important to the overall health and well-being of children it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.”  

Forest Schools and the Benefits of Unstructured Outdoor Play



Coe, H. (2016). Embracing risk in the Canadian woodlands: Four children’s risky play and risk-taking experiences in a Canadian forest kindergarten..

Elliott, S., & Chancellor, B. (2014). From forest preschool to bush kinder: An inspirational approach to preschool provision in Australia, 39(4), 45-53..

Fahey, Deanna. “Forest Schools and the Benefits of Unstructured Outdoor Play.”. N.p., 2012. Web. 3 Aug. 2015.

Korbey, Holly. “Let ‘Em Out! The Many Benefits of Outdoor Play In Kindergarten.”. N.p. Web. 03 Aug. 2015.

Matthiessen, Connie. “Children and Nature: Who Let the Kids Out? | Parenting.”. N.p., Web. 24 Nov. 2018.

Mills, Andrea. “Early-Childhood Education Takes to the Outdoors.”. N.p., 3 Aug. 2009. Web. 03 Aug. 2015.