You may have heard about the Museum’s big expansion news or more recently have seen the preliminary plans for the space in the newspaper. While there are lots of exciting things going on in the plans for the new space, one thing is clear: we will be increasing our outdoor nature play adventuring opportunities. Exploration of any kind is helpful to early childhood development. Outdoor exploration, especially in natural landscapes, has been shown to increase intelligence, attention span, and happiness.
We are strong advocates of spending time outside, whether you stick to the Dotson Back 40 here at the Museum, take a short walk around your neighborhood, visit a local park, or head to the forests and mountains. No matter how you choose to spend your nature time, countless benefits exist. Let’s look at our favorite ten:
TEN WONDERFUL WAYS NATURE PLAY AMAZES
1. Confidence building
Playing outside has a tendency to be a lot less structured than most indoor play. Kids get to pick what to try or not try. The child’s opportunity to think about their choices and the consequences of those choices allow them growth in confidence. Watching a child try and try to climb, get frustrated and pout, then try again with success and triumph is magical.
At the Museum: Let your child build a structure with the logs and sticks without your help. Show them your interest by watching, but not correcting or fixing. If they ask for your help, challenge them to tell you exactly what they’d like you to do. Allow them the role of project manager and you their assistant.
In your yard/neighborhood: On your own playground or at a park, try letting your child only do the activities they can accomplish on their own. Give them encouragement when it’s possible for them to achieve it (we are not advocating for letting them try things they’re not developmentally ready for yet), ask them guiding questions when they attempt something they shouldn’t.
2. Sensory stimulation
Humans have at least five senses, and if we have more, it’s definitely in nature that the elusive sixth or seventh or sixteenth senses will reveal themselves. Visual, auditory, smell, taste, and touch are always available to us in nature. Letting kids fully immerse themselves in all the landscape has to offer will not only stimulate, but delight them.
At the Museum: One of our favorite ways to engage the senses is in the mud kitchen. The squish of ooey gooey soil between the fingers engages everything but taste…we hope! And even if a curious toddler took a lick, at least they’d learn a lesson.
In your yard/neighborhood: Go on a sensory scavenger hunt! Make a list of five things to find in each category, with the possible exception of taste unless you’re visiting a safe vegetable garden on your outing.
3. Wonder and awe
We are exposed to things we never think about elsewhere when we are in nature. What kind of moss is that? Where did that bug come from? If a tree falls in the forest and there’s no one there to hear it, does it still make a noise? Okay, maybe not that last one, but you get the idea. Our “wow!” meter is often off the charts when we are outside. Allow your kids the opportunity to discover the majesty of this great green and blue planet.
In your yard/neighborhood: Take a hike in your neighborhood or some nearby woods and ask your kids to find something they’ve never noticed before. Ask them to describe what makes it exciting to them.
4. Stress reduction
The wind in your hair, the scent of lilacs dancing through the air, the warmth of the sun on your face: are you feeling more relaxed just imagining it? Study after study shows the positive effects on our mood when we spend time outdoors, even if it’s just short amounts of time. The vitamin D the sun provides and the exercise we get moving around are separate factors.
At the Museum: All of our outdoor activities will offer these benefits to the kids, but we think exploring the garden or watching the animals are the most calming.
In your yard/neighborhood: Take some time to try some outdoor meditation. You can do this anywhere! Find a place to sit, stand, or lie down comfortably, then guide your kids through a simple breathing exercise. Even just one minute of focused attention on our breath has a soothing effect.
5. Increased movement
You absolutely get nature play benefits by lying in a hammock reading a book, but you and your kids are more likely to find yourself running, jumping, climbing, biking, hiking, skating, skipping, or otherwise moving your bodies when you are outside.
At the Museum: We love our activity options outside, but one of the best spaces is the wide open green space past the gardens! Challenge your kids to a game of tag; play follow the leader; practice your cartwheels and backbends.
In your yard/neighborhood: Try to move differently every day. If you’ve been sitting at your desk all day (hey, we’ve all done it!), take the kids outside for a walk. Try yoga in the backyard while the burgers are grilling. Get creative in your movement.
6. Imagination and creativity
The sky’s the limit–literally–when we play outside. Kids have an innate ability to play pretend and take on a whole new universe. Being in nature provides them all the materials they need to transport to different times and places. Nature also has the best craft supplies! Letting kids collect leaves and sticks and flowers and nuts and rocks and on and on (as long as you’re not in a public place where it might be illegal/harmful to collect; check first!) to make some art will likely yield some of their best work yet.
At the Museum: From the water play to the mud kitchen to the barn and beyond, our Dotson Back 40 is a magical place to play pretend! Take on whatever role your child assigns you and let whimsy whisk you away to the land of imagination.
In your yard/neighborhood: Let your child find all of their materials for an art project in your yard or on a walk (remembering not to take flowers from gardens!). Guide them only as they request and provide whatever else they ask for. Let the outdoors inspire them.
7. Fresh air and sunshine
Fresh air not only feels good, but has evidence of helping digest food better, improve heart rate, strengthen the immune system, and more! It can give kids more energy if they’re feeling sluggish, and it actually releases the happy chemical in the brain, serotonin, leading to better moods. Sunshine’s effects are similar, plus it provides vitamin D!
At the Museum: Too much sun can be overwhelming and harmful, so we do have sunshades over parts of our outdoor spaces, but at the right time of day or when you’re slathered in sunscreen, enjoy soaking in the rays and filling your lungs at every one of our outdoor activities.
In your yard/neighborhood: From newborn babies to cranky parents, stepping outside can change your body’s response to stress. Baby won’t stop crying? Step outside. Three-year-old having a tantrum? Go for a quick walk.
8. Deeper understanding of the world and environment
The curiosity kids feel while playing in nature is unmatched. There’s so much to discover! When they find something new, they want to know all about it. It encourages them to pick up a book (or ask a LOT of questions…sorry, parents!) and learn as much as they can. Having a strong understanding and appreciation of the world at work around them will foster a lifelong love of taking care of the earth.
At the Museum: Our favorite place to learn about the wonderful world is the garden and the animal barn. A lot of kids see vegetables growing or goats jumping for the first time in our backyard! Read the signs and displays to the kids and let them ask questions. If you don’t know the answers, offer to look them up when you get home.
In your yard/neighborhood: Plant new plants in your garden, test your soil, start a compost pile…there are tons of options to try at home to gain a deeper understanding of the world and environment.
9. Experimentation promotion
Kids can’t help themselves, they want to know what happens next! How many times does your four-year-old ask you, “Why?” every day? Spending time interacting with nature allows kids to think, “I wonder what would happen if I…” Then they try! These experiments–from big, guided, multi-step processes you help them with to small pokes at a patch of moss to see what it feels like–help children develop their critical thinking skills at many levels.
At the Museum: We love the water play area for experimenting. With the different ways to manipulate the flow, kids are given tools and opportunities to try new things with one of the world’s most abundant resources.
In your yard/neighborhood: Provide opportunities for your kid to experiment with the things around them in their spaces. Try taking some sand toys to the beach to see how different consistencies of sand perform in castle-building.
10. Nature Play is FUN!!!
This benefit is for all ages and is a no-brainer: being outside is awesome.
At the Museum: Our new expansion (completion expected in 3-5 years) plans include a four-season outdoor space. Fun all year round!
In your yard/neighborhood: Enjoy outdoor time every day with every member of your family and you will see all the benefits above and just plain joy.