Nature Play in Schools – A Mainstream Option?

Do you remember being a kid?  Where did you feel the most free, calm, at peace? Where did you play your best games, alone or with others?  Where did you show the most perseverance, determination, and do the most hard physical work? And where did you assess risks, make reasonable decisions, and feel most proud of yourself?  Chances are you were outside.  Today’s children do not get much chance to play freely in nature. It simply doesn't happen for them, with devastating consequences.

Last week, economist Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta called for the study of nature to be introduced from the first year of schooling. We have known about the importance of kids engaging with nature from neurological, educational, healthcare, food-science, economic and many other perspectives for decades, yet our education system remains rooted in the interests of the industrial revolution. How many more perspectives do we need before nature play becomes mainstream in schools?

You don't need to look far to understand the benefits for children of free play in nature. It's not just common sense, it's well researched and documented. Not only would future generations feel connected with nature and therefore more likely look after it, but there are also social, emotional, and physical wellbeing benefits for the children themselves. This wellbeing relates not just to immediate “present-moment” wellness, but also to the discovery of self, self-esteem which develops through mindful play, social collaboration, practical problem-solving, and self-identity, which we hope will contain an element of environmentalism. 

That’s right, kids who play in nature learn to love nature, themselves, and each other. 

We also understand that too many structured activities (anything organized or supervised by adults) can slow the development of self-directed control, as adults in such scenarios can provide external cues and reminders about what should happen, and when. Professor Peter Gray goes as far as to liken schools with prison. While TOP wouldn’t necessarily go that far, we do support the notion that free play outside enables kids to make their own decisions, assess risks for themselves, and get creative. 

A good example is the difference between climbing a tree and climbing a playground structure.  On a tree, kids decide where to place their feet, judge how far the next branch is, and assess whether to climb down or jump.  On a playground, adults have decided how far apart to place the holes, directed the traffic flow (e.g. slides are supposedly for going down), and allowed very few opportunities for kids to assess risk. We don’t want the first time kids take risks to be when they are sitting behind the wheel of a car. 

We want this generation to know how to keep themselves safe in a range of environments. But our regulatory environment has limited schools’ ability to teach risk-taking. TOP wants to change that by ensuring teachers are highly trained and then letting them get on with their job.

The outdoor revolution

Globally, western cultures are moving towards ideas of re-naturalisation. From urban roof gardening, to forest-bathing wellness therapies, wilderness programmes for at-risk youth, and udeskole (Danish outdoor school) and forest schooling. More locally, various nature-based initiatives are available for children to join, such as the scouting and guiding movement and a growing number of bush schools. Yet, these organisations are encumbered by health and safety madness. Furthermore, many local authorities want their sterile, manicured parks and reserves to be looked at rather than interacted with. TOP thinks this needs to change.

Some schools certainly do understand the importance of outdoor play for children. And elsewhere parents who can afford to, and who understand the benefits, are paying upwards of $50 per day for their children to attend nature-based school programmes, as an alternative to mainstream schooling. But TOP argues that the benefits of nature-based play are even more compelling for more vulnerable and disadvantaged children. Should these benefits be available only to the elite in our society? We think not.

Teaching outdoor education

Since 2004, the National Education Goals have incorporated physical activity in the priority list of “development of high levels of competence” in primary schools. How does “physical activity” differ from “physical education”, and what role does nature play have in each? How do the roles of teachers and learners differ between physical activity, physical education, and nature play?  What should teachers be teaching, and how? 

Forest school-type programmes tend to be very child-led, which means that apart from safety restrictions, there are often few instructions. Such programmes teach children to respect themselves, each other, and the environment, then provide a few simple resources and let them pursue their own ideas. From mud slides, tree-climbing, and hut-building to whittling sticks, scrambling up and down slopes, or chilling out in a hammock under a tree, it all depends on what children feel like doing at that moment. 

Staff are present for supervision and support, but children assess their own risks and make their own decisions before getting involved in any new situation. Feeling safe is paramount for optimum learning, discovery, and exploration. Allowing children to make their own decisions around risk-taking enables them to become curious and wonder in their own time. This approach also nurtures their social and emotional development, as they learn self-regulation, are motivated to try, fail, and learn, and feel connected with their peers. 

So TOP argues that, rather than adopting a technical, instructional approach to teaching outdoor education (training students to replicate certain behaviours or skills), we should enable and facilitate outdoor learning through discovery, failure, and reflection. 

We don’t pretend to have the expert answers or advice to tell teachers how to teach. However, we value teachers as skilled professionals who, with quality training, should be left to get on with their jobs. We certainly don’t see education as an opportunity for politicians to regulate, score political points, or tinker with a sector they don’t understand.

Let’s encourage the next generation of Kiwi kids to challenge traditional thinking, innovate, and find ways to live in harmony with the natural world on our beautiful planet. Let’s allow them plenty of time in nature to develop that love and respect for the environment. And let’s enable our education system to embrace a style of teaching and learning that encourages environmental awareness and creates strong future leaders of our country.  TOP wants to make a difference in this space. Join the outdoor revolution now!

Naomi Pocock is TOP's Hamilton West Candidate and Education Spokesperson

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