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THE PARENTING BIZ – Nature’s Gifts For Creative Play

THE PARENTING BIZ – Nature’s Gifts For Creative Play

By Michelle van Heugten

Have you ever stood in awe beneath a canopy of trees as their branches danced and sang in the breeze? Maybe you’ve sat quietly on the banks of a stream gazing into the mirrored reflection of the sky? Perhaps you’ve even danced in the rain.

When we are deeply connected to the world around us our lives are rich with these experiences. The natural world offers us peace, serenity and well-being.

Children benefit greatly from nature play. Their natural curiosity about the world around them fills their minds with questions and wonders as they explore nature’s gifts. When we provide an opportunity for children to gather, collect, wonder about and investigate nature items, we enhance their learning.

By blurring the lines between the indoor and outdoor learning environments, we can enhance children’s learning. Allowing nature’s materials into the classroom or home gives validity to children’s natural curiosities. Providing time and space for their collections to be displayed and played with, deepens their understandings and connections to the world.

How can you provide your child with the benefits of nature play?

Simply give them time to discover the gifts of nature right in their own backyard. Children find joy in connecting with nature and often take notice of the outside world with eyes wide open for discovery. Whether it is that first dandelion growing in the grass or a lovely ladybug that emerges from its winter nap, children’s curiosity drives their learning.

Creative play, with items such as sticks, acorns, rocks and leaves, allows children’s imaginations to soar. Materials become transformed and manipulated to support their play.

Often we will include these natural materials within our sensory bins, small world play and at our nature discovery tables. When natural materials are offered to children, along with traditional materials, whether in the indoor or outdoor learning space, children’s play is enriched and deepened. Children learn to care for the natural world. They come to value nature’s materials, which in turn supports their developing stewardship of the environment. Considering the environmental concerns of our current society, this is imperative as we guide children in their life’s journey.

Providing a space in the indoor or home learning environment for nature to be celebrated and investigated, tells children the gifts of nature are valued and important.

Simply place a beautiful tray or basket out to house your child’s nature collection. Soon your space will be connected to children’s curiosities and creative thinking as they play with both traditional play materials and nature’s gifts.

A nature journal is a wonderful way to engage children in drawing and writing about the world around them. A book is simple to make with paper, a hole punch, an elastic and a stick. All you need to do is fold the paper in half for as many pages as you would like in your book. Punch two holes in the paper near the top and bottom of the book near the folded edge. Then slip the elastic through the holes and slide the stick under the elastic ends to fasten the book.

Photo courtesy John Barnes.

Encourage your child to take their book outside and record what they discover about the natural world. They could even record their observations from inside the house. Bird watching is a wonderful way to greet the spring season and also learn about our native songbirds.

The inaturalist website and app can provide information as you research the birds you discover. The inaturalist app can be downloaded on your tech devices and used to track and learn about the natural world. For younger children inaturalist offers the app Seek which is easy to use and promotes outdoor explorations.

Your child’s nature collection serves as inspiration for storytelling as well.

When children transform objects to enhance their play they are innovating and developing creative thinking skills. In this way, sticks become wands, stones become treasured gems and leaves wings for flight, during dramatic play. Pair these items with your child’s more traditional toys and you have the recipe for a magical childhood experience.

Thinking about how you might offer a few nature items to your child? A muffin tray is an easy way to present your child a few nature items to include in their play.

Remember, when children collect the items themselves it will be meaningful to them. Perhaps, you have seashells saved from a trip to the beach or pinecones discovered from a trip to the park. All of these nature items can be used to enhance children’s creative play. Children delight in using these materials within their art experiences.

Nature items can be paired with paint, Play-Doh and other artistic mediums. Create a family collaborative canvas using your nature collection. Pinecones and leaves make wonderful tools to use with paint. Let your imagination soar as you experiment.

When you join your child in creative play with nature’s gifts you help to build their sense of connection to the world. The natural world can indeed serve to inspire and educate us all if we take the time to simply look around. I leave you with the words of John Muir, “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.”

Michelle van Heugten is an Essex County Kindergarten teacher and artist with a love of all things creative. With over 24 years of working alongside children and families she shares inspiring creative play ideas and materials through her blog; on Instagram and Etsy shop.

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