Free play is beneficial to all kids, but nature-based play is even better because it allows children to develop a range of science, math, and engineering skills.
As we move into spring and the days become warmer and longer, it’s only natural to want to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. What better time to take the kids and head to a local park as spring unfolds around us? Children are spending half the amount of time outdoors as children did in the ’70s and ’80s. Their free time has declined dramatically over the last 20 years and the amount of unstructured activity has decreased by 50 percent.
Children can live without a connection to nature, but they will not thrive and have the opportunity to develop essential learning skills that nature teaches. Unstructured outdoor play enhances social development, problem-solving, and overall creativity.
When children spend time in nature, they learn about the world around them. The experience of visiting a park or going on a nature walk as a family can enhance the emotional bond between parent and child. Family experiences in nature will help the child develop both socially and emotionally. Conversations that occur while spending time outside increase communication skills while building a child’s vocabulary.
Spending time out in nature is one of the best and least expensive ways to keep our children healthy and improves school readiness. It facilitates healthy brain development, self-confidence, and overall greater physical fitness, especially when it involves unstructured play or what we call “free play.” Free play allows children to explore, create, learn and do what is of interest to them while having fun.
What most parents do not realize is that children are constantly learning when they play. It is crucial to a child’s development. It is through play that children experiment with what they are learning. Puppets, blocks, and dress-up are all ways that children act out how they think the world works. They get feedback from peers and learn to negotiate and collaborate—essential school readiness skills today. We also need inventors for the future, and it is through free play that children experiment and problem-solve. They are learning physics and engineering when building blocks or maneuvering tricky monkey bars. By mastering skills and learning competencies on their own, children gain the self-confidence and skills needed to become problem-solving, creative adults.
Looking for a great outdoor play space?
Try EYI’s Pickapark.org, a searchable website designed especially for families with young children. Pickapark.org lists more than 700 parks throughout Long Island where parents can choose their park by zip code or amenities such as bathrooms, playgrounds, benches with shade, and so much more.
When free play occurs outdoors, the benefits are even greater. Nature-based free play provides even more advantages than indoor play; essentially, the play is bigger and better. Nature is a very effective science lab where children can develop a range of science, math, and engineering skills. These skills include classifying objects into groups with common characteristics: predicting, experimenting, and drawing conclusions. The hands-on learning teaches children about natural cycles, seasons, environments, and how things live and grow. Children are able to develop a sense of wonder and appreciation for the world around them.
Encourage your kids to collect interesting leaves, sticks, and other natural materials from nature. Children can use these objects to create interesting mosaics, leaf rubbings, and fairy houses. As children engage in art-based activities in nature, they develop their reasoning skills, and learn about patterns and shapes, as well as new ways of expressing themselves.
Do you want to increase your child’s mathematical abilities? When children play with natural musical instruments such as rain sticks and hand drums, they learn about sound and vibration, scales and measurements, and experience rhythm, tonality, and pitch. When they move their bodies to the music, they learn about spatial relationships while developing gross motor skills. Find a few naturally made instruments and put them out in your yard, and let your child dance away.
Children are born learning. During those early years, make time to disconnect from all screen-based technology and reconnect with nature. Whether children are in a park or backyard, time spent outside is a wise investment in the development of both your child and family.
Patricia Manzi is director of LINCK at The Early Years Institute in Plainview. The Early Years Institute educates parents, professionals, and the public about the importance of children’s early years on their development, bringing together community leaders to make bold investments in young children to give them the best start in life.