The following blog is an excerpt from chapter 1 of Claire Warden's Potential of a Puddle. This book discusses effective outdoor practice and advocates for children in nature. In chapter 1, Warden argues why she believes that all children should be able to play outdoors. Please refer to Potential of a Puddle to read all 8 of Warden's main arguments.
Given all of the apparent challenges, why do we still persist in the promotion of play in a high-quality outdoor environment? What unique benefits can children gain outdoors?
A sense of freedom
Many children lead 'organised' and often sedentary lives, whether indoors sitting at a computer or a television, at a club, or in a car. The freedom that many of us felt in our youth is being curtailed by highly structured experiences in enclosed environments that are usually indoors. Children need a sense of autonomy if they are able to develop a belief in themselves. Effective outdoor play provides a greater sense of freedom: for example the opportunity to make a large-scale structure that you want to hide in, a project that you want to develop over a series of days, using your own choice of materials, is full of emotional learning.
Freedom can be expressed through the amount of time provided, the space the children can access and the choice of resources.
Experiencing the weather
Human beings are part of nature, but many children and adults have become removed from it. Nature is often conveniently packaged or sanitised so that we experience it only from inside a car, or on a walkway through a wood.
Young children have a natural connectedness to nature: their joy of standing in a puddle or watching a worm move is central to their understanding of who they are in the world. Instead of presenting nature in packages, we need to follow young children and engage in more experiences to feel it. Experiencing the weather is the one totally unique aspect of outdoor play. Children naturally move in an environment that is constantly changing from minute to minute and from season to season. These changes create an exciting space to play. Light changes, casting shadows and patterns of coloured light; the wind moves objects both fixed and free; the rain makes the world a shiny place with light bouncing off surfaces that previously looked dull.
Sensorial learning that changes with the seasons
The sensory aspects of natural environments provide unique opportunities for learning outdoors. We now know a great deal about the way that learning takes place in the brain, and the sensorium is the part of the brain in which sensations take place. We all learn in different ways and have a preferred learning style. Plastic materials are widely used in centres to motivate young children, but they engage mainly visual learners. Sensory materials such as grass, leaves, water, mud, wood and rock all naturally occur in a well designed outdoor area. The sensorial experience of nature ensures that we feel the wind, smell the grass, hear the bird song, see the colours change and sometimes eat the carrots we have grown.
"Children need to have space to be able to move with speed, to run, climb, balance and skip."
Learning through movement
Children need to have space to be able to move with speed, to run, climb, balance and skip. The physical mastery of the body is important for the reinforcement of the neural pathways in the brain that are connected to all aspects of learning. Children need to be stimulated by movement, whether through watching objects such as wind-socks, trees, kites or feathers blowing in the wind; through sitting on moving objects such as swings; or through controlling the movement of their own bodies.
Developing a positive attitude towards the world we live in: citizenship
Involving children in the design, creation and care of the outdoor environment is an excellent and meaningful way of developing the skills and knowledge required to become caring and responsible citizens. For example, children can create small arable fields and then tend the plants with care and concern, from the first planting to the harvest of the crop. Experiential learning has been a model used in early education for some time, because it is effective. Watering plants, digging, handling mini-beasts that have an emotional connection to a child and are more likely to stay with them into adulthood.
Involving children as partners in the learning process ensures that both adult and child see the outdoor area as a place for learning and teaching, a shared two-way process.
We hope you enjoyed this excerpt from Claire Warden's Potential of a Puddle. The full book is available in print copy and also as a digital e-book from the Mindstretchers website. We ship internationally.