National Week of Play: Play and nature

Froebel TrustDr Sacha Powell, CEO of the Froebel Trust, reflects on the power of play and young children’s relationships with nature.

Play is part of being human. It helps children to explore their inner worlds of feelings, ideas and lived experiences, taking them to new levels of thinking, feeling, imagining and creating.

Nature provides rich potential for imaginative, creative and symbolic play and is a stimulating context for music, song and dance.

The natural world offers a rich sensory, ever-changing environment, full of exciting features to explore and investigate and to learn through active enquiry, play and talk.

Through gardening, exploration and play outdoors children develop an understanding of the natural world, begin to appreciate its beauty and learn to take care of it.

The interrelationship of all living things

Froebel was a pioneering educator who invented kindergarten.

He emphasised that children should experience all aspects of nature, not just plants and animals.

One of the best ways children can experience nature, he argued, is through their play outdoors in the garden and in the wider natural environment.

Through real life experiences, children learn about the interrelationship of all living things. This helps them to think about the bigger questions of the environment, sustainability and climate change.

In nature, children can learn to make connections between what is known and what is new as long as they are accompanied by someone else who shares an enthusiasm and curiosity about nature and who can inspire and support their enquiries.

This includes babies and toddlers who can benefit enormously from an outdoor environment that offers opportunities to encounter a range of multi-sensory play experiences in nature with knowledgeable, nurturing adults who make it possible for them to manipulate their environment, to explore and to engage in a range of behaviours.

Freedom with guidance

Children need ownership of their play and adults who offer them ‘freedom with guidance’ - to enrich play as a learning context.

Knowledgeable and nurturing adults observe children carefully so they know when to stand back and when to join in to help to support and extend children’s interests. Observation helps us to understand how children develop their own learning through their self-activity, senses, interests, and everyday experiences.

Freedom with guidance looks different in different cultures but it often involves warm interactions and words of encouragement.

Play can be initiated by a child or an adult, but an adult must be careful that their own play agenda is not the most important or only one.

Free flowing play is more like a conversation with each listening to and tuning into the other.

Trying to include everyone

Play and learning through nature are not always available to everyone.

Some children may need more help than others to access natural environments and the nature that surrounds us, even in built-up or urban areas.

Some children are eager to get outside to play; others may be fearful and need encouragement and support.

Things that can help include:

- listening and observing sensitively to understand their fears

- taking favourite activities outside

- building up children’s interest in the outdoors through related activities indoors

- finding things outdoors that children are interested in – “Look, you can see your breath!”

- making sure that someone the child trusts is sometimes outdoors and sometimes indoors

- offering partially covered spaces as a way for them to transition between indoors and outdoors.

Keep it going

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, research showed nurseries and schools that spent more time outdoors with the children, especially in natural spaces like the garden, park or beach, discovered that everyone – children, educators and families – felt more relaxed and children who were new to the nursery settled in more easily.

Now is the time to keep that momentum going, to spend more time outdoors and to ensure all children make those fundamental connections in and with nature from an early age.

As Froebel wrote, “The child who has cared for another living thing… is more easily led to care for his own life.”

This article refers to and uses excerpts from a collection of free Froebel Trust resources and research for early years educators all about children, outdoor play and nature.

Find out more by visiting the Froebel Trust website

Play Week logo

This blog was published as part of the Alliance's National Week of Play.

To get the free National Week of Play resource pack which is full of play ideas please send us your details and we'll send you the link to the pack.