New Zealand is a wonderful place to raise children, providing endless opportunities for outdoor play, and memories treasured by our little people. However, it’s not just the fun that is created on these adventures, there are many benefits for outdoor play – so let’s jump in!
As technology becomes more and more prevalent in our everyday life, the importance of outdoor play becomes especially important and essential for our children’s physical, mental, and social development. Not only does it provide the opportunity to explore and investigate their environment, but it allows children to learn more about Papatūānuku, and develop physical and social skills with their peers.
As a group, Bear Park have been inspired by The Goodness of Rain; Developing an Ecological Identity in Young Children by Ann Pelo, which tells a story of her year-long journey as she nurtures the ecological identity of a toddler and discovers for herself what it means to live in relationship with the natural world. The book discusses the use of the outdoors as an educational environment – one that doesn’t include slides, play gyms, or other conventional playground props – and the development of an ecological identity.
The power of this approach resonated so much so that 5-6 years ago Bear Park stripped back the outdoor environments, removing additional playground resources to allow for rich, open exploration, and to support the children in their learning. What was the outcome? Increased curiosity, fostered relationships, a sense of wonder, and an environment empowered by the children as to how it was used.
Bear Park has since continued to develop environments to encourage ecological identities in the children ie. the Dilworth centre which has herbs planted in the fantail playground providing outdoor sensory elements, and leaving the children smelling of rosemary and basil!
As many ECE’s have adapted to new forms of technology throughout their learning programmes, a break from a screen in exchange for fresh outdoor air is not only needed but also has positive impacts on our children’s mental health. A child’s brain expects and needs outdoor play for development. When we watch our children play outdoors, they use their senses – sight, sound, touch – creating a multitude of neural connections.
As with adults, when we spend time in nature we restore our equilibrium, the same applies for children. Research shows that feeling connected to nature leads to reduced stress levels, improved concentration and behaviour, and better sleep rhythms. A Danish study found that children who grow up with greener surroundings have up to 55% less risk of developing various mental health issues later in life. The same study found that spending extended time in nature leads to sustainable attitudes – when children feel connected to nature they’re more likely to care for it in the future.
It’s easy to see the social development learned from outdoor play, we simply have to look to our children to see them interacting with their peers and using their imaginations to create new games. Not only does this spark creativity in their developing minds, but it encourages skills such as problem solving, communication, cooperation and collaboration.
So next time the rain is coming down and it would otherwise be an indoor play day, perhaps grab the rain jackets and gumboots and head to explore the outdoors. What does rain smell like? Where do the birds hide when it rains? What does a droplet of rain look like under a magnifying glass?
“We must discover our place in the natural world. Together.” – Ann Pelo