The idea that children should be spending more time in nature is gaining momentum in early childhood circles.  Culturally, our lifestyles have shifted dramatically over the last fifty or so years keeping more and more of us inside and sedentary.  Scientists and researchers are just now beginning to understand the implications of that shift, and consequently, early childhood programs are being charged with cultivating a love of active, outdoor play in children.  Research is showing that prolonged, unstructured time in nature is linked with a whole host of positive outcomes: reduced incidence of mental health problems, increase in problem solving and critical thinking skills, better physical health, and higher cognitive function.  Basically, we are discovering that kids who spend lots of time outside are healthier, happier, and smarter.

Many of us will reflect fondly on our own childhoods with memories of being told to go outside and not come home until dinner, and for a variety of reasons, that type of unstructured, child-dominated play doesn’t happen much anymore.  Studies have found that young children spend 1% of their free time outside – and that percentage accounts for both structured (outdoor sports, play at parks, bike riding) and unstructured (digging in the dirt, fort building, make-believe play) time.

Outdoor learning is a passion of mine.  Our family has been fortunate to participate in a research study through Nature Explore, and the fruits of that study have greatly enriched the crew’s daily experience.  Before the Planks began this project with Nature Explore, we were implementing some elements of natural playscapes into our outdoor space, but with guidance from the research team, we added elements that have extended and deepened the play possibilities. This spring, we will be working with Backyard Abundance to landscape the area to further support children’s interactions with nature.

Normally, March does not guarantee outdoor time in Iowa, but with the warm winter we’ve had, our last few days have soared over 70.  I’m not complaining!  Here are some pictures of the crew getting in touch with nature.

Desmond is crawling and pulling up on everything.  For him, outdoor experiences involve crawling everywhere!  I frequently offer him his pacifier while he is roaming to discourage an all out mud-feast.

We found dinosaurs that we’d buried in the sand pits last November.

We have a whole box dedicated to dirt digging.  Children benefit from having spaces somewhat defined for their use.

The individuals helping us with our backyard renovation suggested putting a stump in the middle of the sandbox.  This was one of the greatest ideas ever.  It gives children a flat surface to sit on or use in construction.

The kids call this area “The Forest.”  It is an area about 12 inches deep with mulch (very cool to walk on!) and filled with open-ended natural materials for play.

The hill and slide – kids love to look at the world from a different vantage point.

Behind the slide.  Notice those sticks along the retaining wall?  Willow. This will create a living tunnel once it grows up and leafs out.

Another glimpse at the wall.

Behind the slide – a tree bench.

Part of our residential plan was a fire pit gathering area.  While we don’t use it much for campfires while the crew is over, they do enjoy running the outer circle, and incorporating the fire pit in dramatic play.

If Tekoa could dig for worms all day long, she would be one happy lady.

Showing off her find!

Arranged to encourage climbing

Check out the size of that stick!  Stick play is so useful for children to encourage emotional skills of confidence, impulse control, self-regulation, and to contribute to feeling powerful!  I monitored this situation with a close eye to make sure that Cadence was using the stick in a way that would be safe with two other friends close by.

While there was nothing unsafe about her stick use, she decided to move to the smaller sandpit so she could work without interruption.

Tekoa teaching Henry to dig for worms.

Snack time at the stage.

Hope you’ve enjoyed some of the beautiful weather through some of your own unstructured time in nature!