This month I was invited to be a keynote speaker and presenter at the ACECEA conference in Sydney. As part of the conference, we were invited to visit Early Childhood Education Centres to look at the way they have developed beautiful outdoor learning environments.
Features at all these centres included inspirational natural learning spaces that give the children many opportunities for creating, imagining, risk taking, problem solving, experimentation, hypothesizing, researching and investigation. Within all these centres, the children have a real sense of connection, ownership and stewardship. “If we want children to be passionate about nature, they need to be involved with nature”.A child led us through a gateway to the Macquarie College Early Learning Centre Bush Garden, with tall gum trees swaying gently in the breeze. She proudly showed us a square construction of four logs that she described as a picture frame that we could have our photos taken in. She showed us a construction covered in green shade cloth that looked like a trampoline. When I asked what they used it for, several children told me that this was the place where they lay together to watch the clouds in the sky and the branches of trees swaying in the breeze, and that if I looked very carefully at the ends of two tall branches I would be able to see the nests that birds had just made and that now the birds were sitting on their nests waiting for the eggs to hatch. “We like to lie together and make up songs and stories about what we see and do you know that clouds keep changing and that a cloud elephant can go sailing by and turn into a dinosaur as the clouds change? We see lots of things in the clouds”.All the children were totally absorbed in their creative play. A branch had been cut off a tree leaving a short low V shape that was perfect for a seesaw that two children were constructing. They carried a short log and placed it in the V, only to find that the log was not long enough for their seesaw to move up and down. They enlisted the help of two more children to help them carry a longer log and together they positioned the log in a way that could help them all to get on their wonderfully constructed seesaw.There was a big hill with a narrow concreted water-course. Several boys were busy with engineering and construction using sticks, small logs and mud. They were very engaged and settled and were exploring different ways of using the water to create dams and rivers. Right alongside, was a group of little girls playing in a very simple log hut. They invited us over to come and have tea. They had a big bowl of mud and added bowls of water to get the mud to the right cake consistency. Flowers were added for decoration and we were given a plate of cake each, and told that it was ‘delicious’.In another area, a teacher was collaborating with children as they looked for caterpillars. They were using a powerful magnifying glass to examine all the details of the caterpillars. Such play inspires a sense of awe and wonder at the miracles of nature.
Newsletters, photos and children’s drawings are sent regularly to families, illustrating highlights of the children’s play. Parents tend to stay longer watching the children as they chat to each other. There is a real sense of timelessness and freedom. There are no time constraints on the children’s play.Play is building memories, laying the foundation for creative thinking, imagination, agility, conservation, co-operation, compassion and self-confidence. Play in the outdoor environment awakens the senses and is important for healthy brain development, causing the brain to release feel good chemicals like serotonin, adrenalin, glutamate and dopamine, that orchestrate nerve development, neural pathways and alignment all over the brain.
These busy, productive children are learning about the world and how to interact with nature and with each other in a caring, co-operative, co-creative way. It is giving them a strong awareness of where others are in relation to themselves. Their play teaches them social skills, to be courageous, to learn rules, to establish boundaries, to care for others and to lead and to follow.
Natural learning environments help children’s aesthetic, creative, imaginative, spiritual and sensory development. Through play, they naturally tune into the sounds of nature, marveling at the colours, shapes and patterns with a sense of joy and wonder. They develop the ability to dream and turn their dreams into reality. Literacy, numeracy and communication can become a natural part of co-operative, collaborative play with the support of their teachers.Providing natural learning environments such as these for children is a social investment that promotes a caring, loving society, nurturing the scientists, environmentalists, artists, musicians, creative thinkers and problem solvers of the future.
© Julie Wylie Musical Play, 2017