By Connie Bergstein Dow, author of From A to Z with Energy! 26 Ways to Move and Play
Student mental and emotional health is one of the top concerns of educators across the country, and it’s never too soon to address it. In this post, I will offer some suggestions for creative play in an outdoor setting that support mental health in young children.
Why Creative Movement?
Guided creative movement activities provide an environment for healthy brain development in young children. On a very elemental level, exercise is an important component of physical and mental well-being, as it improves blood flow to the brain, reduces inflammation, and lowers stress hormones. Creative dance sessions can set the stage for a love of being active and can also help children learn and develop age-appropriate motor skills. Additionally, when children perform physical activities like dancing, their bodies release endorphins (sometimes called “feel-good chemicals”), which enhance and elevate mood.
Structured sessions also provide a safe space for children to process and express emotions as they respond to open-ended movement prompts. Another mental health benefit from creative movement activities is that children are participating in an enriched, multi-sensory environment. This can result in stronger neuronal connections and better memory.
There are also many specific benefits to be gained when children play outside. Danielle Cohen, writing for the Child Mind Institute, states, “Most of the studies agree that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive, and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors.”
Cohen goes on to say, “Not only is exercise good for kids’ bodies, but it seems to make them more focused.” Cohen also cites building confidence, providing different stimuli, and reducing stress and fatigue as more of the positive outcomes of children playing outside.
Shanda Deziel, writing for Today’s Parent, explores additional benefits of outdoor play for children’s mental health. She explains that outdoor play boosts academic performance, improves sleep, and reduces ADHD symptoms.
So, in support of physical and mental well-being, enhanced moods, processing and expressing emotions, neuronal connections and better memory, stress reduction, pleasure, better academic performance, improved sleep, and fewer ADHD symptoms, here are three playful, creative, gross motor activities about nature that children will enjoy—while they are out in nature!
1. Nature-Inspired Warm-Up
Let’s get ready to move with these warm up exercises based on ideas from the natural world.
Time: Approximately 10 minutes
Description: This activity is designed for an unobstructed outdoor space. Show or mark the boundaries of the activity to the children before you begin. Each child can perform these warm-up exercises in one spot, so make sure there is enough room between each child for stretching arms and legs.
1. Turn your head to the side. What do you see? Turn to the other side. Look down at the ground, and up to the sky. Repeat several times.
2. Stretch your arms to the sky. Now make big circles with them. Use them like wings: first slowly like a hawk, soaring through the sky. Then as fast as you can, like a hovering hummingbird!
3. Like a cloud moving through the sky and slowly changing shapes, make your body into a curvy shape. Now make it into another one. Now try a very low curvy shape, then a high one. Try these same four curvy shapes again. Repeat several more times until you are doing them very quickly in succession.
4. March in place, swinging your arms. Try marching quietly as a mouse. Now stomp your feet like a giant dinosaur.
5. Bend your knees, and then go up to tiptoe. Do this several more times. Then, bend your knees again and go all the way to a jump. Jump in your spot, on both feet, like a rabbit!
6. Can you balance on one foot like a flamingo? Try balancing on the other foot. Now hop on one foot, and then hop on the other. Can you hop while you turn around? Try turning in one direction and then the other.
7. Slowly bend over with your hands on your knees. Walk your hands to your ankles, and stretch for several breaths in this position. Slowly come back up to standing.
8. Shake out your hands, arms, shoulders, and upper body. Now shake your feet, legs, and lower body. Now, like a dog who has just been swimming in a lake, shake out everything all at once.
Now we’re ready to move on to the next activities!
2. How Do Animals Move?
Different types of animals and suggested prompts will inspire children’s imaginative movement ideas.
Time: 15 to 20 minutes
Description: This activity is designed for an unobstructed outdoor space. Show or mark the boundaries of the activity to the children before you begin.
Optional: If you can play music in your outdoor space, choose lively instrumentals or songs with animal themes.
Present the Activity:
Begin calling out prompts below one by one. Make sure to give children enough time between each prompt to fully explore their ideas. For the first prompt, have the children respond by working their way from one end of the space to the opposite end. For the second prompt, they would go back to the starting point. Continue having them travel back and forth this way until all prompts have been explored. If they are still engaged in the activity, ask them to contribute their own ideas—or invent a new animal!
Here are prompts to use as children move back and forth across the open space. The phoneme pairs add an extra element of fun:
- Busy Bee
- Charging Cheetah
- Chattering Chimpanzee
- Climbing Kitty
- Crawling Crab
- Dancing Duck
- Frolicking Frog
- Galloping Goat
- Leaping Lizard
- Parading Penguin
- Playful Porpoise
- Prancing Pony
- Quiet Quail
- Slithery Snake
- Talkative Toucan
- Twisty Tadpole
- Whirling Whale
- Zigzagging Zebra
Make up your own!
3. Let’s Dance About Water
Kids will learn about different qualities of water through movement.
Time: 20 to 30 minutes
Description: This activity is designed for an unobstructed outdoor space. Show or mark the boundaries to the children before you begin the activity.
Optional: If you can play music in your outdoor space, choose quiet instrumentals or songs with water themes.
Present the Activity:
Below are movement prompts for this activity. Allow plenty of time between prompts for the children to respond in movement.
- Move like water as it travels slowly in a river, then faster, then quickly over a waterfall.
- Try moving like waves in the ocean, cresting and falling. What would it feel like to be a wave washing up on the shore?
- When water gets warm, it evaporates and becomes steam. Whirl, swirl, curl, feel lighter than air. Rise and fall, moving as quietly as you can.
- When water cools in the sky, it becomes a cloud. Imagine you are a cloud. Can you change slowly from one shape to another, just like a cloud on a summer day? Move silently across the sky as you change shapes.
- Now you are rain, falling from the heavy clouds. Fall slowly, then fast. Imagine you are a raindrop, blowing back and forth in the strong wind.
- Let’s pretend to put on our raincoats, hats, and boots. Run as the fat raindrops fall on you. Let’s splash in the puddles! Stomp, then hop from puddle to puddle.
- The temperature is dropping! The rain turns to snow. Imagine you are a snowflake. What snowflake shape are you? Try several other shapes. Let the cold wind carry you as you glide, turn, swirl, and blow. Gently fall to the ground.
- Now let’s make footprints in the snow. What shapes can you make with your footprints? Let’s build snow people! Pack the snow and roll it—first a big section for the base, then smaller sections, and put one on top of the other. What will we use for the face? Let’s throw snowballs and then go sledding!
- Some of the snow has turned to ice! Let’s imagine the ground is covered in a sheet of ice. Put on your skates and glide forward and backward. Make patterns like figure eights with your feet. Can you balance with one leg behind you? Can you spin? Faster?
- Imagine you are a snow person. Make a snow person shape with your body. What will happen when the sun comes out? Slowly melt to the floor. Finish in a puddle shape!
I hope you’ll try some of these playful dance activities when you and your young charges go outside for some exercise and fun. Enjoy exploring creativity, movement, and nature together!
Connie Bergstein Dow took her first dance class when she was four years old and has been dancing ever since. After attending Denison University and earning an MFA from the University of Michigan, she danced professionally in the United States, Venezuela, and Guatemala. Connie has had a long career as a dance educator and has written two books for teachers about integrating movement into the early childhood classroom, articles for magazines and journals, and verses for Highlights. She shares her passion for dance by writing, teaching, volunteering, visiting schools and libraries, and offering movement workshops to early childhood professionals. Visit Connie at www.movingislearning.com.
Connie is the author of From A to Z with Energy! 26 Ways to Move and Play
We welcome your comments and suggestions. Share your comments, stories, and ideas below, or contact us. All comments will be approved before posting, and are subject to our comment and privacy policies.