Wired by Nature- How outside playtime optimizes whole-person development

Yellow, green, and red leaves in a child's hands

The research is clear and overwhelming that children were designed by nature to benefit from immersion and experiences in nature. Ample outdoor time for children functions effectively as a multivitamin for our brains, bodies, and souls.  In his seminal work, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes about Nature Deficit Disorder, and connects to the supporting research that direct exposure to nature is essential for healthy childhood development and for the physical and emotional health of children and adults.

That humans need nature to thrive is not a new concept!  Indigenous teachings connecting land-based practices to overwell wellness are based on the belief that our whole-person well-being is interconnected to engagement with the world around us. The benefits of outdoor and nature-based learning experiences are also supported by the field of neuroscience, linking encounters in nature with optimal brain integration and nervous system regulation.

From the research-backed understanding of positive child development, best practices support sensory-based nature experiences that engage and embody multiple senses and support whole-person emotional, cognitive, and physical development.

We believe that intentional time outdoors noticing the natural world around you with your children is one of the most efficient and effective relationship-building, whole-person learning experiences we can share with a young child. We invite all families to share in regular opportunities to discover, explore, encounter, and experience nature and the outdoors for a whole host of positive benefits!

A group of young children sit on wood benches, facing a tall white person speaking in front of a nature preserve
Preschool- and kindergarten-age Treehouse Learning learners visit Waneka Lake on a senses-based nature exploration with Martin Ogle, from City of Lafayette outdoor outreach

Nature as Curriculum:  what do we learn through nature via our senses?

Imagine late morning on an early fall day at a park with mature trees, a lake, and a wildlife preserve. You can also simply go outside in your own backyard, or even a section of a parking lot with living things growing, nearby trees, or mountains in the distance.

Wherever you are, find the natural things around you, and invite your child into a conversation about what you notice! We optimally experience nature with our senses in ways that lead to whole-person development, especially within the context of safe and secure relationships!

  • Notice, name, and provide language to what can be heard:  Are there birds? Crickets? Traffic? Sound is directional, and the location of sound by our ears integrates the sides of our brains through bilateral experience. Encourage children to notice and listen for sounds in multiple directions, which supports building skills of auditory processing skills and integration of brain hemispheres. 
  • Notice, name, and provide language to the things that can be seen. What can you see with your eyes? How close can you see? Are there tiny ants? How far can you see? Practice looking closely at a blade of grass or the patterns in the trunk of a tree from close, then stretch your eyes as far as you can see- to the top of a tree, to the other side of a lake, to the furthest mountain peak, or the clouds up in the sky. Follow birds across the sky with your eyes. Invite children to move their eyes and shift their vision in multiple directions. 
  • Name, notice and give language to the ways nature can be experienced through our bodies. What can we sense or encounter directly with our bodies? How many ways can we move across a surface? How many different surfaces can we walk, move, wheel, or touch? We use different parts of our bodies when we move through tall, unmowed native grass vs. uniform mowed and manicured lawns. Are there pinecones to toss? Pebbles to toss in a pond? Throwing, catching, or tossing supports hand/eye coordination, gross motor skills, and brain integration. Outdoor environments are ideal in providing a smorgasbord of natural materials, surfaces, and sensory invitations to explore within adult/child relationships.

Tips for Incorporating Nature Time with Children

  • Transition times outside: Even the busiest of days usually contains multiple opportunities for brief moments in nature with children, whether in your backyard, a park, or even a moment outside during a transition in your day that takes you outside. Notice what your child notices and shift your attention to what your child is interested in, and add age-appropriate language around it. For younger children, name the things you see, hear, touch, or notice. For older children, ask open-ended, curiosity questions to invite them to share what they notice with you, or make it a game with guessing.
  • Nighttime Experiences Outside: After dinner or before bedtime, head outside to notice the moon- how big is it? Where in the sky is it? Observing the changing size of the moon over time builds an opportunity for an embodied understanding of math concepts like bigger and smaller (which is the foundation of addition and subtraction), as well as concepts of time. Nighttime sights, sounds, and sensory opportunities are drastically different than their daytime counterparts- imagine exploring this marvel and wonder from a young child’s perspective!
  • Nature walks with your children. Whether walking your dog, walking on a trail, or walking around the block, tune in and notice what is around you- what is growing, what can you observe about the seasons? How many plants, trees, birds, or types of wildlife can you notice and name? If children can learn the difference between different characters on a TV show, they can also learn the names of trees, plants, birds, and other living things around them. Or simply explore beautiful places with young people who already adore spending time with you.

Whole-Person Learning that Organically Grows from Nature-Based Experiences

Child holds colorful leaves.
Nature designed children to learn through sensory exploration of the world around them
  • Nature time allows children to practice classification and building understanding. A ponderosa pine tree and a cottonwood tree are both types of trees that are similar, yet different, from flowers, and both trees are also different from each other. The diversity of the natural world provides learning opportunities for building discernment and distinction skills, as well as cognitive, and communication skills. 
  • Speaking of noticing differences, nature also provides an opportunity to build tolerance and inclusivity. Children notice differences in the world around them and look to the adults around them to make meaning of these differences. A sunflower is different than a tulip, each is beautiful in its own way, and neither superior nor inferior to the other. When we notice differences in nature and talk about them, we have a natural bridge to also notice that humans also come in all shapes, sizes, colors, ages, and abilities, which allows us to make meaning of these differences. Nature builds social-emotional tools and skills.
  • Nature models an interdependent community-based ecosystem. The worm has a specific role and function, as does the sun, the chlorophyll in the leaves, the rabbits eating the grass, and even the foxes and predators. The worm, the sun, and the fox all perform very different functions, and it wouldn’t work well if the worm tried to do the job of the fox! A healthy and thriving interdependent ecosystem works in harmony when all parts of it work together. Our engagement with nature fosters interdependence within our own communities of belonging as well. Nature bends towards diversity, inclusion, and collaboration.
  • Nature widens our perspective and inspires creativity: Any time you’re in a space without walls, invite your child to see as near and as far as they can with their eyes. We spend plenty of time seeing things close up (especially in a predominantly screen-based society), and a balanced brain needs our eyes to “stretch those muscles” by looking far away too. How far away can the eyes see? How far and wide can a person imagine?
  • Nature stimulates empathy: The wider our perspective (visual, as well as mental, physical, and emotional), the greater our ability to take the perspective of another or see a circumstance from a different perspective. The possibility to experience wide sensory perspectives, like what outdoor spaces naturally encourage us to do, is a precursor to developing empathy, and a foundational stone for moving towards right relationships with ourselves, others, and the world. 

Related Images: