40. Exploring Nature

Research tells us time and again that regular play in natural environments has a positive impact on almost every aspect of a child’s development, from increased fitness and coordination, to greater patience and even language skills. It’s no coincidence that in Germany and Scandinavian countries like Finland and Denmark, where outdoor learning and forest schools are more common, statistics regularly trounce the UK and America in terms of education and academic results. But research and statistics aside, we all know instinctively how important being part of the natural world is. We all remember how magical time spent outside as a child was. We all recall rockpooling on the beach and swinging from a tyre in the woods, more than we remember time spent in the classroom. With fresh air and light, new smells and sounds, unfamiliar terrain under foot and unchartered territory ahead, all senses come alive, and with them a child’s sense of wonder. Once that is activated, learning happens like magic. Here are some tips for making exploring nature part of your day:

  • Keep wellies and waterproof clothes by the door, so that even in bad weather you can get outside when everyone’s going stir crazy
  • Use old jam jars as viewing jars for bugs. HABA do a viewing jar with an integrated magnifying glass but a simple jam jar will do
  • Get hold of an animal, bird or plant identification book and see what you can find in your garden or elsewhere nearby.
  • Observe. See how animals and plants live. What do they need to survive and thrive? What can we do to help them? This can lead to discussions about whether we should put seeds out on a bird table, for example.
  • Understand the weather. Learn to read the skies.
  • Collect items for a nature display at home (or a book of pressed flowers, etc.). Note the variety. Can any of the objects found replace some of the toys at home? Could you use sticks and stones for construction instead of blocks; use feathers and leaves for collage instead of paper?
  • Make a den with sticks or if you’re feeling brave, a fire and toast marshmallows
  • Take your toys outside and use natural props like sticks and leaves to create a magical forest full of fairies or a pre-historic swamp full of dinosaurs

Have you ever created a nature table?

It’s such a simple idea. Set aside a surface in your house to display natural objects you have gathered on your walks. Stones and bark, pine cones and flowers, anything will do. Just make sure it’s interesting or beautiful, which is easy, of course, as most things in nature are usually both.

If you can, try to refresh it regularly. Making a nature table is rewarding in itself, but watching as its contents change throughout the year is a wonderful way to mark – and draw a child’s attention to – the passing of the seasons.

And don’t forget to leave a magnifying glass nearby. Much in nature is so familiar that it’s easy to take for granted. Get up close, you might discover something new.

The nature table is often a jumping-off point for all kinds of investigations and creations. Simply having one in the home will inspire new kinds of play. It’s especially good for transient art (more on this in an upcoming post).

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