All children have a right to develop their own, personal relationship with the natural world. With scarce resources, the Earth's capacity to recover from the effects of human actions is limited and we are now situated in a global climate change crisis (IPCC, 2021). Therefore, it is vital that children spend more time outdoors in nature.
In contemporary Australian society, children and families often have increasingly limited opportunities to connect with the natural environment. Today's children are becoming less and less engaged with nature as time and access constraints, advances in technology and community attitudes to risk aversion limit chances for children to play outdoors.
Throughout Australia in the past 10 years there has been an increased interest and engagement with immersive nature play programs in early childhood settings and playgroups. These programs are often called 'nature play' or 'bush kinder'. Immersive nature play programs are where children are invited to engage in child-led play in outdoor settings where natural elements feature, and offer a vast array of possibilities not available indoors. Play spaces in natural environments include plants, trees, logs, sand, water and rocks and other elements from nature. These are mainly located in the bush, on the beach, in parks, paddocks or around creeks.
I believe that outdoor play in natural environments is vitally important for learning in early childhood. Research recognises the value of children's play in nature for their health, wellbeing, confidence, learning capacity, creativity, communication and problem solving skills. Through playing in nature, children are given opportunities to explore and connect, learning to care for the Earth and one another. Long-standing research has supported children's connections with nature and examined how early connections may impact on later environmental attitudes and actions.
An example from an inner-city early years setting in Sydney describes: "Rather than having one site we regularly visit for play, we have many small spaces within walking distance that we visit with children. This allows us to walk different paths and see multiple parts of our community on the way. We have found different types of play, tend to happen at these different sites depending on the affordances they offer and well as the cultural constructs the groups of children have created in relation to those places over time. Over the years, these places have been named by the children, reflecting their play and shared imaginary landscapes. Those little parks and green corridors can become special little worlds where play and civic participation can come together. When I began, only the preschool children were going on regular, spontaneous walking excursions, but over time this has grown to encompass all learning groups, including 0-2 years olds."
The New South Wales Early Years Nature Connections (NSWEYNC) is a not-for-profit group established to support the connection of all children with nature within an Australian context. Our purpose is to promote young children spending more time outdoors in nature.
Join us on Saturday, October 9 to learn about fostering children's connections with nature through play and the importance of learning in natural environments in this free online workshop at 2pm through the Eco Living Festival. Click the link below and sign up now.
The Eco Living Festival has free online interactive sustainability events until October 24 to encourage participants around Australia to feel confident to create sustainable lifestyles and make choices that protect our environment. Themed webinars will allow participants to understand ecosystems, reduce waste and get up-to-date with climate change from Dr Karl.
- Dr Fran Hughes on behalf of NSW Early Years Nature Connections