Tag Archives: nature

Why Our Children Need Nature

Winter’s grip has been firm this year.  Just this week we were pelted with a heavy, wet snow – enough to snap a few soft spring branches from our trees.  By day’s end, however, spring is back, the snow has melted, and the sun is out again.  Where are my boys as winter turns to spring again?  Huddled around an electronic game, watching a pixellated display of a virtual reality while a beautiful afternoon threatens to pass them by. 

Once the game’s trance is broken (by a little of my own “magic”), they run outside to play.  Ironically, by bedtime it takes as much convincing to get them inside as it did to get them outside.

Whether it’s the pull of electronics, the crunch of busy schedules, or the inconvenience of a cement-bound location, finding opportunities for children to be in nature can be a challenge if we are not consciously seeking them out.  Children seem inherently wired to answer nature’s call for environmental explorers, but the static of our contrived environment often muffles that call. 

In the best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv discusses the integral role nature plays in the healthy development of children.  In this book, which over the past five years has spawned a movement, the author introduces the term, “nature-deficit disorder”, and links it to a variety of maladies from which children commonly suffer today.   From Louv’s perspective, it is no coincidence that the “denaturing of childhood” has coincided with the rise of childhood obesity, anxiety, and attention disorders.  

With both anecdotal and research-based evidence, Richard Louv links time in nature with improved motor skills, concentration, clarity, peace, positive emotions, attention-span, creative play, and a reduction in symptoms associated with ADD.  These effects are often shown to be unique to time in nature, not just the results of physical activity or recreation alone.

I may not be quite as “green” as some would like me to be, and I am often slow to get onboard with the “movement of the moment”, but this environmental movement is one I can get certainly get behind.  As Louv writes, “The children and nature movement is fueled by this fundamental idea: the child in nature is an endangered species, and the health of children and the health of the Earth are inseparable.”  Louv’s book is fascinating, and one I would recommend to everyone.

No matter what shade of “green” you are, we can all agree that our children need experiences in nature to contribute to their healthy development.  Here are just a few reasons why.

A Healthy Shot in the Arm

As budget cuts and improved testing performance require more and more of the attention of public school administrators, PE and recess are falling steadily down on their list of priorities.  In some schools they hardly exist at all.  Concurrently, the rate of childhood obesity in the US has tripled over the last three decades.

It may take a lot of coercion to get children to do an aerobics video, but take them out in nature, and you will have a hard time keeping them from running, jumping, and climbing.   Being in nature encourages the development of small and large motor skills and promotes overall physical health.

The Creative Spark

Whatever your religious beliefs, it is easy to see that being surrounded by naturally created, wondrous beauty inspires human creativity.  Louv cites biographical experiences of the “famously creative”, showing the influence of nature on their creative passions.  Among this list are the names of Samuel Clemens, TS Eliot, Jane Goodall, Thomas Edison, Eleanor Roosevelt, Beatrix Potter, Ansel Adams, and the list could go on.

While many indoor activities require a more passive role for children, with terms created and themes constructed, nature offers children a greater role in constructing their play as they draw from the many “loose parts” nature has to offer as props.  They are drawn into an active role as they create with the Supremely created. 

As Louv writes, “Nature offers a well from which many, famous or not, draw a creative sense of pattern and connection….Nature is imperfectly perfect, filled with loose parts and possibilities, with mud and dust, nettles and sky, transcendent hands-on moments and skinned knees.”

An Awakening of Stewardship

When children experience nature they feel a sense of connectedness.  They are moved a bit beyond their ego-centric worlds to see the grand scheme of a larger sphere.  This connection creates a bond of stewardship.  You care for what you love, and you love what you know.  It may be difficult to explain the environmental plights of distant scenes, but when a child discovers litter on a favorite trail or rubbish in a beloved brook, she knows personally the need for responsible stewardship.

The Natural Scientist

Experiences with nature awaken a sense of curiosity and wonder in all of us.  Whether we’re exploring bugs in our backyard or the waves of the ocean on a sandy beach, we are captivated by nature’s power and uniqueness. 

This wonder fuels scientific inquiry almost without effort.  The main areas of preschool science (Physical Science, Life Science, and Earth Science) all find their roots in nature.  A preschool child cannot truly gain a knowledge of science without an experience with nature.

When I was studying to become a teacher, I remember learning about Howard Gardner’s theory of Multiple Intelligences.  His thesis was that intelligence can be embodied not only in linguistic or mathematic performance but that different people can have a myriad of intellectual strengths.  As I studied this theory Gardner had defined seven intelligences.  There are now as many as nine.  Number eight is “Naturalistic Intelligence”.

Admittedly, more reasons could be added to this list, and you’ll find plenty more in Richard Louv’s book, but this will have to suffice for now.  It’s time for me to get outside with my boys.

Top photo by jurga.

Center photo by glumus.

Bottom photo from personal collection.

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The Winter Games…..Outdoor Ideas for Preschoolers on a Snowy Day!

The best way to learn about winter is to get out and explore it!  Here are some ideas for some fun in the snow!

  •  Fill spray bottles or squeeze top bottles (dish soap, Gatorade) with colored water and create designs in the snow.
  • Make tracks in the snow using a variety of objects (cars, spoons, shoes).  Play a guessing game to match the tracks to the objects.
  • Look for animal tracks.
  • Experiment with freezing different sized containers of water outside.  Which freeze fastest?
  • Place a small plastic toy in water and let it freeze outside.  Bring it inside and experiment with ways to thaw it out.
  • Go Sledding!
  • Bring a container of snow inside and let it melt.  Look with a magnifier at the impurities in the resulting water.
  • Bring in snow and put it in a pot or electric skillet.  Pour salt on it and watch it melt.  Apply heat and melt completely to water, then boil it.  Collect some of the steam on a lid or dish.  You can talk about the water cycle, phases of matter, as well as the fact that when the water evaporates, the salt is left behind.  (This is a complex concept to really grasp, but children enjoy the activity.  I used it to answer a child’s question as to why the snow leaves “white stuff” on our cars.)
  • Build a snowman or snow fort!
  • Use the same tools you would use for sand castles to build snow castles.
  • Press cookie cutters into the snow to make shapes, or use letter cookie cutters to write a message.  This works best in packed snow.  If you’re worried about cutters disappearing, put the snow in a baby pool or in your sensory table.
  • Catch snowflakes on black paper or black felt and examine them with a magnifying glass.

 Outdoor activities promote motor development as well as provide natural earth science experiences.  Bundle up and let the games begin!

For more wintry activities, click here!

Photo by toomas.

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Old-School Leaf Rubbing

leaf rubbingI once heard someone say that we have to be careful not to be in such a rush to give our children all the things we never had, that we forget to give them the things we did have.  That saying comes to mind as I think about this old-school leaf rubbing activity.  I don’t think I even need to give directions, do I?  I hope you all had plenty of opportunities to make leaf rubbings as children!  I just wanted to remind you to pass on that opportunity!  Even today, in the age of the internet and wii, children light up as the leaf seems to magically appear on the page while they feverishly rub their crayons across the paper!  This activity increases fine motor skills while also creating awareness of the texture and other characteristics of leaves (science).  Combine this with other leaf activities that can be found at the fall favorites page!  Enjoy childhood!

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Leaf Pounding

Leaf pounding

This is one of my favorite activities!  Help your child take a leaf and place it between two strips of muslin or other white, cotton fabric.  Together, hammer the muslin with a rubber mallet.  As the mallet strikes the leaf, the chlorophyll is released from the leaf and absorbed by the fabric.  Colored leaves in the fall work also as long as they have not become too dry (though their red and purple colors come from a type of sugar in the tree instead of chlorophyll.  Check out this website  for more science information about fall leaves.) 

When I’m talking with children as they do this activity, I mention that the leaves are holding the color inside, kind of like a water balloon.  When those balloons are hit, they break and the color comes out onto the fabric. 

This experience builds science knowledge while also providing a large motor activity.  Obviously, with all the pounding, this activity can be noisy, and it requires enough room for safely swinging the mallet.  Outside is ideal!  That way, the children can also search for their leaves as they wait for a turn.

Find more about trees and leaves at the fall favorites page!

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A Camping We Will Go!

camp signKids love the adventure of camping!  Particularly when it comes to camping in a dramatic play scenario, anything can happen!  When I set up a camping theme dramatic play area this week, my own 3 year old asked, “And where is the bear?”  I could guess he already had a storyline brewing.  In the course of a few days, he and his friends camped, chased bears, were bears, and in a strange twist, even turned their tent into a tank and joined the military.  (I told you anything could happen!)

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So here are the supplies I suggest for a camping dramatic play area.  PLEASE let me know what you like to add!

  • A tent, of course!  I used a play tent here, but I’ve also used a real dome tent in larger areas or outside.
  • Backpacks – stocked with blankets, flashlights, old cell phones, compasses, binoculars, and play food.
  • Location, location, location!  Add something to make your woodsy retreat.  If you’re setting up outside, great!  You’re done!  Here I used a tree prop.  It’s made from a large cardboard box (from a car seat, I think), opened on one side and then folded out into a large strip.  These folds make it much easier to store.  I tape up fall leaves, apples, and anything else I may need to make a more specific tree.  You can’t see the color much in this photo, but I colored the canopy of the tree using three crayons in different shades of green, holding all three at once, and drawing curly cues all around.
  • Reading Resources.  You may add some field guides, or nonfiction animal books for the campers to use to identify their furry and feathered neighbors.
  • Characters.  With my son’s request, I also added a bear puppet.  You may want to add other animals as puppets, stuffed toys, murals, or even birds suspended from the ceiling if you’re that ambitious!

Dramatic play encourages symbolic thinking, a necessary skill for reading.  Also, social and language skills grow by leaps and bounds as they negotiate and implement roles and plots.  (To learn more about dramatic play, click here!)  Camping is a great dramatic play theme for many nature units, including trees and leaves, fall, and animals.

What would you add to this camping props list?

For more favorite fall activities, click here!

Top photo by porah.

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The Tall and Short Tree Sort

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If you’re doing a study of trees, here’s a math activity to get your kids going.  It could be used as an independent game, at your working tables for example, or you could easily use it as an extension activity after any number of fantastic tree books.  Now, I’m going to share two things with you.  The first is this set of tree sorting cards.  Just click on the link below, and then click on the document icon to be connected to the PDF.  (The file is yours to use as an educational tool, not for sale or gain, of course.  And, as with other resources here on this site, please please share, but please please cite www.notjustcute.com as your source.) 

Tree Sort and Series Cards

 Now, I told you I was going to share TWO things with you.  The set of tree cards is the first.  The second, is the fact that I am not and never have been an art major!  So,  please excuse my quick drawings of trees.  I’m sure many of you could make a much better set, and you have my blessings to do so!  These do seem to do the job though.  So far, I haven’t had any children ask me what they’re supposed to do with the mushrooms!

These cards may seem self-explanatory, but I’ll explain anyway, because I’m known for stating the obvious.  Once these cards are printed, cut, and laminated if you wish, mix them up, providing one card of each set to a child to sort out and find all the trees that look similar and put them in a group.  (If you can’t tell, there’s an apple tree, a regular tree….you could call it Maple if you want to, a pine tree, and a palm tree.)  Once the cards are sorted into groups, have the children put them in ascending order, smallest to tallest.  Some children can do this right away, others need to be coached through it (“Which one is the smallest?  Put it here.  Which one is the biggest?  That goes over here. …..”)  If you’re working with very young children, you may want to omit one card from each set, so that you just have small, medium, and large.  That makes it easier to make comparisons.

 tree series

This activity could obviously be done at a table or on the floor, but if you have a pocket chart, the kiddos always love the chance to use the “teacher’s stuff”.

This activity builds math skills  as the children sort based on characteristics and compare the cards in order to place them in ascending order.  Vocabulary is expanded also as you use comparative words, such as big, bigger, biggest, and other words for size (small, short, tall, etc.).

You could also create a similar activity, using actual leaves from different types of trees.  Get a small, medium, and large sample of each one, and let your little ones sort them out and then arrange them in a series!

For more favorite fall activities, click here!

Top photo by Izabelha.

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