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We are passionate about nature play. It is evident in what we write, what we share, the training we deliver, the playgrounds we develop and in the educators that are part of our family day care service. So when I hear someone say that nature play is a fad or “the thing right now” I take it pretty personally! 

Nature play can mean different things to different people, but to me it is the opportunity for children (and adults!) to engage in authentic, meaningful ways with the natural environment. That natural environment will look different depending on your context. It does not necessarily equate to a “forest school”! If you are in a coastal area your natural environment may be the beach, dunes and grasslands. If you live rurally it may be dirt, scrub and gum trees.

This morning I spent a few hours in the backyard with my 5year old, 2year old and 8 month old. We spend a lot of time outdoors and I find that all three (and me!) are much more content outdoors. This morning we found a small moth on the side of our table and I helped Bodhi place his hand out, encouraging it to climb on. We watched as it fluttered on his hand. “His wings are so delicate”, he said. And I wondered how, at five, he knew what delicate was. Yet as I watched him for the next hour with this tiny moth crawling up his arms, on his back and in his hair, it became clear. He knows what delicate is because of moments like these. Moments of quiet, authentic engagement with the natural world. And it was then that I was certain, nature play is no fad, no “approach”, it simply is and always should be, for all children.

So why is it still considered a fad? Particularly in a country where no matter where you live there are natural environments. Our country has bush, beach, lake, creek, dirt, desert, rainforests, fields, gardens, mangroves, wetlands, mountains and more. And even if venturing into wild spaces is not an option for you (although it easily can be!) you can ensure that your immediate physical environment encourages children to engage with the natural world, 

The benefits of nature play and connectedness are undeniable and this morning as I watched my 5year old engage with a moth, my 2 year old follow a snail and my 8 month old playing with bark, rubbing her tiny fingers across it, it was just so clear how important nature is. 
Supporting nature play doesn’t mean that every thing needs to be made of wood or stones, it is about real connections. So, here are 7 ways to authentically engage in nature play:
  1. ​Go BAREFOOT - Otherwise known as Earthing, the practice of being barefoot has many health benefits and also enables children to get “feedback” from the ground, supporting motor development. Dirt and grass also feel great between your toes!
  2. Look for WILDLIFE – Even the most urban areas have wildlife such as snails, spiders, ants and birds. Look for wildlife together, ask questions and hypothesise 
  3. CLOUD watch - Lay on the grass on your back and watch the clouds. Many children love to describe what the clouds look like, conjuring up images of bunnies and dragons, while others may want to know what the clouds are made of. Cloud watching discussions are often magical
  4. Pick FLOWERS – my kids love picking flowers to put in a glass on our dining table before meals. It is becoming somewhat of a tradition, despite the fact that we are not green thumbs and don’t really have gardens! They still manage to find “flowers” and watching them find the beauty in what we adults call weeds, is enough to make me smile
  5. LISTEN - simply spending time outdoors with your eyes closed will uncover a range of natural sounds. We have done this and heard birds, bugs and even the trees
  6. COLLECT – My toddler is often referred to as “the collector” – she loves filling bags, boxes, baskets and trolleys with all sorts of treasures. In an attempt to harness this, we make collections of stones and shells and leaves. These are often used in games and play for weeks after! (reminder – teach children to only collect items that have fallen on the ground, not to remove from trees etc and to be mindful of creatures)
  7. Use TECHNOLOGY – Most nature based articles will encourage you to ditch technology in favour of nature, yet it is possible to use the two together in meaningful ways. As I heard Peter Gray put it once – digital technology is simply a tool of this generation, much like the bow and arrow would have been for early man. My son is fascinated with photography at the moment, so has taken a liking to using my digital SLR camera to photograph trees, leaves, birds and anything that takes his fancy. 

I would love to hear some of your favourite ways of engaging with the natural world!

By Nicole Halton
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What is so special about being with 2 year olds? Many find this age group challenging, those terrible two’s..the temper tantrums that escalate out of control within minutes, the lack of verbal ability, the short attention span – often perceived to be worse in boys!! I believe this age group is the neglected group…in most EC centres they are either ‘lumped’ with the babies in environments that are not suitable for two year olds or they are all ‘lumped’ together in a group of only two year olds! Imagine having to spend the whole day, every day, very often in one room, with only people your own age group!

Spending time with a 31month old and a 26 month old in two very different ‘wild’ natural environments demonstrated all the best attributes of this age group. Curiosity, independence, capable, enthusiasm, adventurous, risk takers, self risk assessors, investigators, explorers, competent……an endless list! Not one tantrum, not a tear…….I feel this is the most misunderstood age and all they ask for is our time, our understanding, freedom and the opportunities to be allowed to experiment, explore and face appropriate challenges. Being outdoors offers so many of these opportunities and this is where these young children should be allowed to spend time to explore and investigate at their own pace. Lets celebrate those magic twos!
Wildspace – On the beach
Bodhi runs down the beach, stops, cautiously approaches the water, watches, splashes into the shallow waves while looking out to sea,observes  the waves roll in, and using his own judgement runs out of the water when he feels uncomfortable. As his confidence grows he challenged the waves to “come and get me!”

His body language demonstrates his love of the freedom and space available to him, the wind in his face, the ability to freely jump and move, adults who understand and are able to observe but not interfere either verbally or physically…..he did not need adult ‘interference’ he could DO IT!
Wildspace – In the bush
Oskar confidently leads the way, stops to investigate the Dandelions, picks up two sticks and experiments by hitting them together, then against a tree-stump, a burnt hollow tree, a living tree and a fallen branch. He uses the sticks to poke inside natural holes, one disappears into the tree-stump while the other is long enough to allow him to pick it out again.

He hears a noise, stops, assesses then looks to the adults for reassurance – he is lifted and watches the scrambler from the top of the tree-stump. Later he again hears the noise, looks around, steps off the track with the adults and once passed he confidently sets off again – he is in control….he could DO IT!
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What an exciting day we had in Sydney today! Two very productive meetings as well as a site visit to a pre-school that has long been on our list of ‘must see’. We felt very privileged to meet up with the lovely Jennifer Kable of Progressive Early Childhood Education who shared Kinma Pre-school – and lunch-  with us.

When we walked in we immediately felt comfortable, some of the children gave us a passing glance and then continued with their self chosen activities, it was an environment of calm and purposeful play. The 26 children aged from 3 to 5 years have free access to both classrooms and the outdoor space which is seen as an extension of the indoor space – Educators didn’t feel that they needed to physically be in the classroom if there were children in it. We could see that children had been using all the spaces both inside and outside as there was evidence of constructive play but children’s play thoughts had obviously not been cut off with instructions to tidy up before moving to the next opportunity; there was time at the end of the day to do that. Having open access to the outdoors was helped by the design of the building with it’s large windows and open doors to the outside.

The garden was large and enclosed by open bar fencing allowing children to see beyond the fencing to the open bushland with its large trees and grassland. Vegetable gardens, a water pump children can operate which was unfortunately out of order (pumps and sand are not meant to go together – anybody know of a good sand resistant pump?) Lots of loose bits such as sticks, logs, stones, branches, wooden planks, sand, soil and water made this a magical environment for children who were able to change this space according to their needs. We had entered a genuine kindergarten – a children’s garden!

What did we see?
Children choosing when and where they want to eat their lunches.
Chickens with the run of the garden and of course they knew to hang around near children eating!
Lots of girls in the large sandpit – some in fairy wings – all fully engaged in what they were doing.
Two boys who had made up their own game using planks of wood – chanting and singing and when one fell the other immediately inquired if he was ok.
Mixtures of mulch, woodchips, fragrant flowers, soil and of course water in the mudkitchen.
One boy sitting inside on a large comfortable sofa reading a book.
A group of children playing with the play-dough.
Children on the swings, attempting to get the swings going by pumping little legs backwards and forwards.
A girl with a metal tray carrying a large stone sprinkled with soil and decorated with scented Jasmine.
A group of girls around a bucket of water – chatting to each other ….we don’t know what about but they all looked content and fully engaged in their activities.
A girl pushing a large wheelbarrow/trolley – intent on moving it forwards
Educators who were relaxed, happy to have a quick chat but fully there for the children.

Not only do the children have this amazing space, they also have access to the wild space surrounding the school. Jenny took us on one of the journeys the children take…..along a track, across a rock with a natural stream ‘cut’ into it and a little bubbling waterfall – the children can even get into the water!!! We could hear frogs and every now and again a little blue wren popped out, we could hear and see a variety of birds – what a motivational educational environment for young children – something we wish all children could have access to; in fact every child has the right to a motivational educational environment!

The big question…..what about risk? Answer – in more than 30 years no children have been bitten by snakes or funnel-web spiders, no children have got lost in the bush, no children have drowned in the creek, no children have sustained serious long term injuries -  there have been a few broken arms – Jenny’s son sustained a broken arm when he walked into a wall – and these broken arms were proudly celebrated by the injured child and enviously regarded by the others! In other words – LOW RISK!

Thank you very much, Jenny, for sharing this amazing children’s space with us and for allowing us in turn to share this with others. We are always here to help if Educators want more information on creating a naturalistic environment for children which we are passionate about.

Please visit Jenny on (http://progressiveearlychildhoodeducation.blogspot.com.au/)
Written and photographed by Niki Buchan of Inspired EC