The Importance of Children in Nature

by Teacher Mafé Pulido-Duarte Ellingboe

|||   In Waldorf education we prioritize giving children access to nature. Through our hike days, daily walks, outdoor play and the natural materials both inside and outside the classroom, children can more easily be creative and have open-ended imaginative play and thinking.

While spending a great deal of time in nature is especially true of the Waldorf early childhood programs, all the classes at Waldorf schools, through all the grades, spend a large portion of their day outside, as part of the curriculum.

Let’s dive in to see what nature can bring to a young child. We chatted with one of our Kindergarten teachers, Teacher Mafe, who answered some questions about this nature practice.

Teacher leading Kindergarten children on hike day

What is the value of a Kindergarten hike day?

We strive to walk or hike with children in all weather on a daily basis. It is a perfect way to start our days, with the movement of our limbs and engaging with the Earth by witnessing the changing seasons. Young children benefit from all encounters with the Earth, developing an inner knowledge of nature from an early age and creating a lasting bond with nature. We see that nature creates an anchor and a container for children to develop and play imaginatively and freely.

On Fridays we hike for forty-five minutes to an hour to get to our play spot. Hiking is not always easy or comfortable for children who have not developed their “hiking muscle”; however, the social experience supports our walks, and children quickly build stamina. Hiking for young children supports lung development, breathing, bone density, and the development of the limbs. Children continue to develop their balance, agility, and proprioception when they climb hills and trees or when they go over logs and roots. Additionally, children develop care and love for the Earth. By using rocks, sticks and pinecones in their play, but leaving the flowers for the bees and the hummingbirds, they learn to care for all the nature around them.

Children build & play with stick fort in the woods

How is their hike-day play different in comparison to inside play or yard space play?

When children play indoors or in our school play yard, the quality of their play is different; it is less extensive and focused and less resourceful; we could say that it is more limited in scope and dependent on toys and activities that hold their imagination. In contrast, playing in nature offers children the possibility of encountering a myriad of natural “toys” with different functions, they create freely and with inventiveness, with Earth as a resource. Their play becomes rich and expansive, without the constraints of an appropriate indoor volume or the four walls of a classroom. Many children who are not often outside choose to sit on the ground or to roll and get themselves “grounded” and dirty. Playing in the dirt frees children and relaxes them to get messy and enjoy the present moment.

“Kids who play on natural play spaces as compared to those who play on regular playgrounds are more likely to invent their own games, to invite other kids to play with them that don’t look like them, more likely to play cooperatively, less likely to bully other kids.”Richard Louv answering ‘Five Questions About Nature-Deficit Disorder’

Kindergarten children playing & holding hands in the woods

What are some of the benefits that teachers see from these hikes and playing in nature?

Bodily support: From the Waldorf perspective, children develop their bodies from 0-7 years old. Children become more assertive in their limbs and continue developing confidence in their bodies. Hiking and playing in nature strengthen children’s sense of balance and a healthy sense of life. It calms their nervous systems, providing the growing bodies with a natural source of increased oxygen and exercise.

Emotional support: Taking walks allows children to get to know nature and the changing weather and the seasons; it supports self-confidence, flexibility, and bodily knowledge, and their bonding with the Earth deepens. Experiences with the unfamiliar, such as greeting neighbors as we pass, navigating mud, crossing streets, and passing other hikers simply gives their brains more real-life experiences, yielding greater ease in the world. In a world dominated by technology, nature allows children to be more present and can even counter overstimulation. (It is purported that spending twice the amount of time in nature that you do on screens is what’s needed for good health.) When children realize that they can create their play scenes, have their natural toys, climb trees, and feel strong in their bodies, there arrives self-confidence and a sense of “I am capable.”

Imagination, creativity, and problem-solving: Teachers observe that children will play more imaginatively and creatively in nature; without toys or electronic gadgets, children become more resourceful and inventive and tap into their initiative and resilience. We see children problem-solving when climbing a tree and socially negotiating when they need to move a log found around them. Children also tap into their creativity and sense of wonder uniquely as they find ways to create fortresses, shelters, boats, planes, fairy houses, treasure hunts, etc.

Ecology and Foundation for future Science Studies: Nature provides children an experience of the squirrel or the ladybug, of the freezing winds or the rain. All of these sensorial experiences awaken wonder and curiosity and the interest for later studying the Earth more formally. The positive associations they develop with their ease of being outdoors translate into a love of our natural environment. Being connected to nature cannot help but spring from this time in her midst.

How can parents provide opportunities for outdoor play?

At home, parents can support their child’s development by taking them often on family walks, by organizing playdates with other families that include social walks, picking moderate hikes at first and then increasing to medium hikes. We have found lots of interesting and gorgeous hikes rated on the AllTrails website. Bringing a picnic and eating outside can support the feeling of being “at home” in the outdoors. Finally, a hike/walk a day will often take care of eating and sleeping issues for children.

We wish you good hikes for you, your friends and family.
— Teacher Mafé

Kindergarten children building a fort with sticks in the woods
Kindergarten children climbing trees

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