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Every modern parent has felt the pressure to help their child “get ahead.” Parents are bombarded with carefully marketed media messages that let them know in no uncertain terms that "good" parents offer their children every possible source of enrichment - including educational CDs and videos, school-readiness programs, sports and music lessons, and more – which often come with steep price tags. For this and other reasons, many kids today are spending more time inside or in organized activities and, consequently, less time playing outdoors.
But many parents remember a different type of summer—one spent outside doing nothing in particular. Exploring, playing, swinging, running through sprinklers: this was what summer was all about.
As it turns out, nature makes an excellent teacher, and blissful summer days are now known to fulfill a pretty important purpose as kids develop into adults. Research shows that connecting with nature offers a wealth of benefits to kids that go far beyond just fun in the sun.
Diane Gordon, a former kindergarten teacher and Director of Hooked on Nature, recalls noticing, during her early years of teaching and parenting, how beneficial outdoor play was to a child's development. "Every single thing they did outside was crucial for brain development. Every time they made a discovery outside, there were wonderful things happening. They learned a lot more outside than they ever did indoors. And they developed a sense of awe and wonder which is so important," she says.
In response to parents asking how to ready their children for school, Gordon wrote "Nature's Lessons for Kindergarten Readiness." Here's a sampling from her list:
Concept Development: Help your child to recognize names and colors, like those of the trees, birds and flowers. Use simple nature experiences to inspire informal drawing, singing, painting and dancing. Help her understand the concepts of in, out, under, over, off, and more. For example, "Jump over the puddle. Is there a beetle under the rock?"
Physical Development of Large and Small Muscles: Kids enjoy outdoor play such as running, jumping, rolling down gentle slopes, and bike riding. To develop small muscles, build collections of “nature's treasures” like small rocks, twigs, or feathers, and arrange them on a tray. Plant seeds using small, age-appropriate tools, and keep the soil moist with a spray bottle. Use crayons to make leaf or tree-bark rubbings.
Number Concept Development: Arrange leaves, rocks or shells in groups according to size or shape. Group nature items that are the same – a group of shells, a group of rocks, etc. Arrange nature items in size order – small to big or big to small. Help your child understand concepts of big, bigger, biggest, and small, smaller, smallest. Point out the biggest tree, and ask "Is this tree bigger than that one?" Count leaves, birds, acorns, or pebbles. Help him understand concepts of time by watching the sun rise and set, and discovering when shadows are longest or shortest during the day. Use phrases that include words like soon, tomorrow, and later.
Language Development: Read stories or sing simple songs related to nature experiences you have had together. Talk about your nature experiences. Encourage your child to make up his or her own stories about animals, the moon, the clouds, and other natural things. Model using descriptive language as you talk with your child. ("That's a magnificent tree with big, strong branches.") Give more than one instruction at a time to build comprehension skills. ("Put soil in the plant pot, then drop in the seed.") Provide crayons, colored paper, or side-walk chalk, and encourage your child to draw pictures inspired by the outdoors.
Social and Emotional Development: A child who has the opportunity to share simple nature experiences with caring adults will develop a sense of awe, wonder and respect for the Earth. They will enjoy exploring and discovering new things, leading to a lifelong joy of learning. They'll also develop curiosity, imagination and creativity, strong powers of observation and the ability to make connections.
Plus, they'll be a lot more ready for kindergarten!