Nature-Based Play and Outdoor Learning for Mental Well-Being

By Molly Breen

Nature-Based Play and Outdoor Learning for Mental Well-BeingNature-based play is not a new thing. We know that getting kids outside for open-ended play and exploration is good for physical, cognitive, and emotional well-being.

Environmental inequality is not a new thing either. Depending on where we live or go to school, we will or will not have access to natural settings. And where we live or go to school is often socioeconomically driven.

But for the sake of this post, let’s imagine that we can all find some “wild” space near our teaching environments. Maybe this is a public park, a grove of trees on a sloping boulevard, or just a preschool outdoor playscape. Our outdoor spaces—whatever forms they take—are important classrooms for exploration and learning. Now, perhaps more than ever, we must find ways to immerse ourselves and our students in natural environments for a felt sense of well-being. You know how drinking water is usually the answer to almost everything that ails us? Well, outdoor and nature-based play is often the answer for many childhood developmental challenges, including trauma.

For the past year, during the pandemic, our program has been spending upwards of 70 percent of our time outdoors. In ALL weather. We have always valued outdoor play and learning, but during this very unusual time, when maintaining health and well-being has been a difficult task to balance with development and relationships, outdoor play and learning have became the MOST valuable thing. Our setting is urban and residential, but we are near a university campus and several city parks that make for great outdoor classrooms. Our teachers and families reprioritized outdoor learning and, through some trial and error, we figured out how to layer up for long days in a variety of conditions in Minnesota—including very cold temps and snow . . . lots of snow.

I’ve read much of the research on the benefits of outdoor play and learning, but after this year I can anecdotally share that the differences in our setting are measurable when we prioritize outdoor learning. Challenging behavior is less frequent and more diffuse now; focus and concentration have expanded; stamina, resilience, and curiosity have grown in physical, cognitive, and emotional capacities. I don’t think we will ever go back to relegating outdoor time to a planned period of the day.

While open-ended experiences are primary on my list of beloved outdoor activities, planned and guided experiences have positive impacts too. Here are a few ways to get started with outdoor learning.

Observation

Put together enough clipboards for everyone in your group and attach a pencil or marker to the board with string. (An alternative is to provide everyone with a notebook or hard-bound journal.)

Begin with a walk and plan to find a scenic place to sit. Ask the children to draw something that they see. It can be a blade of grass, an ant, a tree—anything! You can either share the observations together as a group or have the children bring their observations over to you. For younger children, I take dictation and write in their journals or on their paper; for older children, I encourage them to write down a single word that falls within their developmental ability.

Make this a daily practice to develop observation skills, increase focus, and improve fine-motor, language, and literacy abilities.

Exploration

Who doesn’t love a good treasure hunt?

One of our favorite things to do this year has been to hunt for items on our walks and during our outdoor play. Sometimes we draw maps and look for specific items, and other times our hunting is a bit more open-ended. (We have a basic rule of observe, don’t disturb, so kids mostly remember not to uproot living plants or to pull leaves from branches.)

  • Find something pointy or poky
  • Find something soft
  • Find something round
  • Find something wet

Being outside is inherently sensory and has a calming effect on the nervous system. This activity helps connect some conceptual understanding of shape, form, and texture to our wandering in a park.

Creation

Using natural materials to make something is meaningful and therapeutic. When children have their hands on natural materials, they strengthen their sense of place and attachment to their environment. Natural materials are also sense-stimulating and can improve motor functions and general physical awareness.

Bring boxes or other small containers along for children to create bug or worm habitats. Make sure that all critters are safely returned to their natural homes.

Use embroidery thread and a blunt quilter’s needle to make a leaf crown.

Demonstrate safe whittling using vegetable peelers and let kids sharpen sticks on their own after they practice with you.

As you become more comfortable with outdoor play and learning, you can use these three categories as a frame for your planning: what will we observe, explore, and create today?

No matter where you are in the world, there are opportunities to learn, play, grow, and restore ourselves outdoors.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., E.C.E., has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.


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1 Response to Nature-Based Play and Outdoor Learning for Mental Well-Being

  1. aimeebissonette2017 says:

    Terrific ideas – great post!

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