Outdoor Play Helps Children Appreciate Nature
A love of nature, and therefore the desire to preserve it, grows out of a child’s frequent contact and play in the natural world (Schultz, Shriver, Tabanico, & Khazian, 2004; Sobel, 2004). If children do not have ample opportunities to play in the natural world in their early childhood years, they may never develop these attitudes (Sobel, 2002). Instead, children develop fears and phobias about nature and the natural world (Cohen, 1984), referred to as biophobia (Sobel, 1996). Children not regularly exposed to nature refer to nature as “diseased,” “disgusting,” and “dirty.” They also show fear of plants and insects (Bixler, Carlisle, Hammitt, & Floyd, 1994). Because children often spend 40 or more hours a week in early childhood programs, these places may be “mankind’s last opportunity to reconnect children with the natural world and create a future generation that values and preserves nature” (White, 2004, p. 3).
Nature provides differences within sameness. For example, slight changes are found in a babbling brook as water cascades over a little waterfall, becomes narrow through a canyon, or widens around a bend. “These moderate variations in sensory stimulation help maintain optimal levels of mental and physical alertness and foster feelings of comfort and playful attitudes toward events and materials” (Olds, 1987, p. 121).
Nature is also often considered a healer. Olds (1989a) interviewed 300 adults and asked them to describe a healing place for a wounded person. Over 75% described outdoor environments. The remaining 25%, although describing indoor environments, still referred to elements related to outdoors. Studies show that nature helps to mediate stress (Wells & Evans, 2003), helps children develop a sense of season (natural cycles), gives children a sense of themselves as nurturers, and provides connection to something timeless and larger than themselves (Bohling-Phillippi, 2006, pp. 49–51).
Natural, ungroomed places are often favorites of children. When asked to recall favorite environments in childhood, adults tend to remember more natural places than other settings (Jenkins & Bullard, 2002). These are often places that they could manipulate (for example, build a fort) (Sobel, 1993).
Some programs have replaced blacktop, building natural environments that feature trees, ponds, and gardens. Studies in one school where this occurred showed that children had fewer playground injuries, and they experienced more joy, pride, and a sense of belonging after the transformation. In addition, there was a greater awareness of the environment (Moore, 1989).
You may be unable to transform the entire playground environment into a natural place. However, Frost et al. (2004) advocate designing a natural area in every playground, even if it is as simple as retaining an unmowed portion of grass to allow for wildflowers.
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