The benefits of nature on our mental health and well-being are well documented. Being outside, particularly in a green space relieves stress, grounds us, and helps us to quite literally breathe easier.
The same is true of young children. Just like us, they get a cortisol boost from being outside. As a bonus, we, the educators, will receive the same boost, helping us to feel calmer and happier, which children pick up on.
There are also added benefits for learning that nature can provide.
For young children, nature provides endless opportunities to engage their senses and fire their imaginations. They can learn about the natural world while having fun.
Children should be exposed to nature daily, to aid in their mental and emotional development. However, in an urban environment that may be easier said than done.
The good news is there are numerous ways you can make use of nature’s bountiful resources that don’t involve acres of land.
Even when learning through playing, young children still need a break from a classroom environment.
If the logistics and parental permissions allow, nature walks are a wonderful way to get out of the classroom but continue to educate.
Free of the responsibilities of adulthood, children are inherently more connected to nature. They find it much easier than most adults to take pleasure in simple things such as snow, crunchy leaves, or splashing in a puddle.
Whether it’s a duck pond, trees where the children can observe squirrels, or playing pooh sticks, children flourish outdoors.
Children, particularly those at preschool ages, are full of wonder and nature lets their imaginations run wild. A small batch of trees becomes a dense forest, full of mystical creatures. A duck pond could also be home to a sea witch, mermaids, or even a small dinosaur!
Equip the children with magnifying glasses for a more scientific slant to the day’s activities. Watch them become absorbed in the details of leaves, grass, sticks, insects, and anything else that catches their eye.
Books they are familiar with, such as ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury, also provide inspiration.
Special events, such as big nature walks or even trips to a nearby zoo or animal sanctuary can be immortalised in one of our photo books. You can use your own images to create a hardback photo book in minutes using the Capture Education App. Choose the images and captions and we’ll do the rest, including delivery.
Don’t be concerned that such excitement will make the rest of the day difficult.
Studies have shown that children find it easier to learn and concentrate after being outside. This is particularly important for children who struggle to sit still or focus due to ADHD, autism, learning difficulties or just a boisterous personality.
It is not just a child’s emotional and mental well-being that is helped by being outside. Along with the physical activity of walking, the change of terrain helps them to develop gross and fine motor skills. They need to use their whole bodies to climb, jump, and run depending on the natural obstacles present.
Our ‘Physical activity in the early years’ course provides guidelines and ideas for both outdoor and indoor activities designed to facilitate mobility and physical fitness.
If opportunities to get out and about in nature are few and far between due to your location, you can try to create a ‘green space’ on the premises.
This doesn’t have to be a full garden, but growing plants and flowers from seeds is an exciting prospect for a child.
You could even grow fruit and vegetables and serve them at lunch or for healthy snacks. For example, tomatoes and even strawberries can be grown in pots. This also helps children take responsibility for watering and making sure the plants are moved to the sunniest spots. Alternatively, bring the outside in with herb boxes or even an ant farm.
Another way to bring nature into the nursery or classroom is to collect pine cones, conkers, mud, sticks and leaves, and incorporate them into sensory or messy play.
It is important to adapt to your environment and use what you have at your disposal. Games such as pooh sticks can also be recreated with a water tank or even a slide.
Even in a town centre, you can have a bird watching day. Equip the children with binoculars (or help them to make some) and make up some identity cards for common birds so the children can have fun identifying the differences between a pigeon and a sparrow.
There are always insects too. Children are naturally curious but be aware that some children may be more sensitive to, or frightened of, creepy crawlies and spiders.
Caterpillars turning into Butterflies
Caterpillars turning into butterflies seems like magic to young children. However, it’s also an excellent way to teach them about growth and transformation while engaging them in the natural world.
You can buy caterpillar kits online which contain everything you need to raise and release your own butterflies. Most of the kit is reusable year after year, so you just need to source the caterpillars.
The cycle takes between three to five weeks to complete, so make sure you plan it around the school holidays.
Let the children name the caterpillars and feed them sugar water using pipettes. They can then watch their caterpillars go through the process of cocooning and eventually emerging as butterflies.
When it comes time to release them into the wild, try to ensure the weather is good so neither the butterflies nor the children feel rushed. Gently remove each butterfly from the enclosure one by one or let the older children do so themselves. Some of the children may not want to have the butterfly on their hand, and that’s absolutely fine. Others will be thrilled to have touched the butterfly their caterpillar has become. Let each child decide what they are comfortable with.
Art Imitates Life
Since nature has shown to increase creativity in children, following up a walk with some nature-related art can be a good fit.
You can use items collected to help the children create art. From tree rubbings and painting stones to crunchy leave collages, the possibilities are endless!
If you have been out and about, link the rest of the day’s activities to the nature walk. This could take the form of classifying and making a display or counting with pebbles or acorns the children have collected.
Of course, nature pictures don’t have to rely on good weather.
Stuck inside on a rainy day? Show the children how to create raindrop pictures using blue paint and their fingers, or encourage them to draw sunshine and rainbows!
However you choose to incorporate nature into your teaching, the important part is to make the maximum use of the natural resources available to you to help to nurture the young minds in your care.