It may come as no surprise that people have flocked to parks and wild spaces since the shutdowns of covid-19 in March 2020. Wide open green spaces provide more than just a way to get out of the house and remain 'socially' distant to avoid contracting covid-19. Green spaces offer opportunities for physical activities such as hiking, biking, climbing, gardening, and exploring. Physical activity gets our endorphins flowing, which improves our mood, helps relieve stress, and even improves cognition, thanks to more oxygen pumping in our bloodstream. We get to be together but still safely apart, which proves a winning combination when there's a deadly virus floating around.
For young children, these benefits are amplified by a range of other amazing health benefits! Social, emotional, cognitive, language, physical, spiritual, and sensory development abounds in outdoor settings, and decades of research proves it. (There is far too much to discuss in this post, but I promise to circle back in future post!)
Like everyone else, Notchcliff Nature Programs is still grappling with the challenges of the pandemic. We have important health protocols in place, such as daily health checks, hand-washing, and use of masks to protect everyone in our learning community. Our programs are 100% outdoors, which is helpful since the covid-19 virus has lower transmission rates outside. But I want to emphasize that after a year of isolation for most families, this is a critical time to find healthy ways for children to learn and play together.
One of the greatest gifts of outdoor learning is the value of unstructured nature play. If you've never heard that term before, it means just what it sounds like: children freely playing in nature without adult direction. We have thoughtfully crafted a daily rhythm to cradle each of our days, and it includes ample unstructured nature play. This is a vital time for children learn how to interact with each other and have their own meaningful interactions in nature. Yes, teachers always monitor groups of children to ensure their safety, but our aim is largely to step back and observe children at play. This is how we figure out what most excites them. It's how we discover ways to deepen their understanding when we do offer intentional activities and experiences (such as during Circle Gathering). It's how we collaborate to build our seasonal emergent curriculum.
Unlike traditional schools where teachers direct nearly every moment of class time, we leave swaths of uninterrupted play time for children to make choices about their learning. It isn't because we can't fill our time with fun activities (after all, I wrote a book about fun things to do outside!). It's because we know that play is the best vehicle for learning in early childhood. Period. We trust the instincts of children and view them as capable learners. And combined with nature, the inquiry, peace, resilience, and connection is unparalleled by even the most beautiful indoor space.
At a time when it feels we have so little control over what's happening in our world, we are so grateful children can make choices about their learning through nature play.