Richard Louv prompted an important focus on the benefits of nature play with the publishing of his book in 2005, Last Child in the Woods; Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder. In the last decade, there has been an increasing amount of research on the cognitive, emotional and physical benefits of unstructured play in natural spaces. The All Seasons staff came to this school convinced of the value of nature play, and probably enjoy this part of the day as much as your children do. We see the research data written plainly in the faces and bodies of the children—the feeling of freedom and discovery, joy and confidence.
In 2008, the National Toy Hall of Fame inducted “The Stick” into its lineup of all-time best toys. Increasing numbers of nature play areas are being constructed, (see the article on the wall by Amy’s desk) including the Minnesota Zoo’s 30,000 square foot play space due to open in 2015.
As the notion of what constitutes an optimal playground for children has shifted, the question of safety has been raised. Danish educators, who follow a more open schedule and unstructured approach with young children, adopt the attitude of being “as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.” Somehow the great outdoors has come to be seen as more dangerous than riding in a car, climbing stairs, or playing sports. We acknowledge the dangers involved with those activities and, for the most part, while taking some precautions, we conclude they are worth the risks.
Most injuries from outdoor play involve minor scrapes and bruises, yet parents and caregivers can often be heard to call out to the child climbing a fallen long—“Be careful!” But All Seasons parents have entrusted their children to us and to this nature-rich environment. Right outside the classroom door, you’ll see a “stick box,” where children’s sticks are deposited when returning from outside. Several forts, a teepee, and two tents are visible throughout the grounds. A couple years ago, Amy’s dad constructed a wooden frame for the children to build onto, and additions and accessories continue to be created by each new class of students. Countless fallen logs and trees fill the woods, ready for climbing and transforming into hideouts and homes. Boulders provide chances to balance and jump and hide. The Meadow and Pines are environments with their own flora and fauna, and pretend play backdrops. Rain gardens, ephemeral pools, and “The Swamp” provide chances for water fun.
What about safety? Goggles are worn when hammering new planks onto the boulders house. Children can climb trees and branches to the height a teacher can reach. No one eats anything unless the adult gives permission (blackberries are a favorite wild snack in the summer). “Stick training” includes: no touching sticks to another person, always ask first if your friend wants to sword fight, one stick per person, long sticks must be dragged or used as walking sticks. And—children come when they are called.
But we teachers have found that most children monitor their own safety, and err on the side of caution rather than risk. We probably spend more time saying, “I bet you can do that,” rather than, “Don’t do that, it’s dangerous.” Our role is that of a guide, a facilitator, an observer, a cheerleader, and sometimes a playmate. Most of all—and maybe most importantly–we share in the wonder, the curiosity, the pleasure, and the peace, that spending time in the natural world brings.