Getting our kids outdoors
28/04/2019 By Maria Holt

Toddler learning through nature play

Learning is not something limited to the confines of a classroom nor is it something that only occurs with paper & pen. My little man has only just turned two years old, but I know he has been exposed to many rich and varied learning experiences through having spent quality time outside in nature playing.

We visit nearby parks, shallow creeks, beaches & bushwalking trails as often as we can. Nature, and just being outside, has a calming effect on my toddler and helps him to regulate his emotions. Being active outdoors can be another strategy added to a toolbox for coping with life’s challenges as he grows. Nature play helps him learn about safety, risk-management and trusting in his relationship with his parents. He also learns concepts that connect to formal learning.

Science, maths & problem-solving concepts can be picked up through meaningful engagement in nature play. Apart from me introducing words for the unfamiliar, drawing his attention to things he might otherwise miss and posing a few questions as they arise, Mr 2’s time outdoors is mostly unstructured and child-led. As a result, he has learnt a lot about the natural world in developmentally appropriate ways and following on from his own interests and curiosity. He now knows when a rock is “heady” (heavy), has deeply explored sinking & floating by dropping various natural items in the creek and has also explored cause & effect by repeatedly sending leaves floating downstream. My little man loves rocks and regularly counts and arranges them thereby building on his mathematical understandings. He has also been exposed to naturally occurring patterns in pine cones, seed pods and shells. He’s learning mathematical concepts and language like full and empty when he scoops up and subsequently tips out water from the creek. This is laying the foundation for more formal learning of volume & capacity later on.

Mr 2 has also been developing his problem-solving ability and his gross motor skills. Navigating up, around, over and between boulders and other natural climbing features, he has to make decisions about where to place his hands & feet next in order to move around safely. Each environment is different and ever-changing; providing an element of risk and challenge. The challenges and opportunities for problem solving and higher order thinking that a natural environment provide simply cannot be matched by a man-made plastic structure at the playground.

Environments change over time. Mr 2 knows this through observations of the seasons; the depths of the water, the colours of the leaves, the abundance of caterpillars followed by butterflies. These understandings link to studies of society and environments as well as science and will serve him well as he grows. I hope that they help him to become a compassionate, socially and ethically responsible adult who cares about the environment.

These experiences are, of course, always more about having fun and making memories however it is good to know they are also laying the foundation for more formal learning later on. As parents, we want to give our children the best start possible and I firmly believe that spending lots of time outside playing in nature gives my son exactly that gift; the best start.