By Olivia Balbi –Educational Leader, Alkira elc
With Covid restrictions limiting our movement here on the Central Coast, the one thing we can still enjoy is exploring the abundance of stunning natural landscapes right here on our doorstep. In these trying times, we have seen families turning to nature in record numbers. And while it may start out as an excuse just to escape our four walls and release children’s pent–up energy, being in nature has so many benefits that just makes us feel better.
“Breathing in fresh air, being exposed to sunlight and enjoying the stimulation of bird sounds, weather, temperature, textures and colours helps us feel more open and connected to our world outdoors” (Nature play SA).
At Alkira Early Learning Centre, being out in nature is core to our philosophy and we believe vital for children, and their development. Within our daily practices we use natural resources and the environment as the “third teacher” meaning behind educators and families, physical spaces hold the potential to influence what and how children learn. Our “Adventure” (bush kindy) program allows children time to explore natural bush environments and learn how to use the land and its resources in a sustainable way.
Infants and babies are making meaning of their world every day. They do this through exploring their environment using all five senses. Sensory input is how babies learn to respond to new experiences, perceive their own bodies and take in new information. These experiences create pathways for children’s brains to make neural connections, which are happening every millisecond. Bush walks, the beach, and even natural resources in the backyard, are all perfect for stimulating these connections.
Although it is important to always assess risk and danger, for children to experience nature in all its glory, we must put aside some of our worries and give a little ‘free reign’. Outdoor experiences require children to make decisions and judgements which also allows them to experience graduated risk, at levels they are comfortable with. Learning how to assess risk is an essential skill to acquire as the more risks you allow children to take, the better they learn to look after themselves.
Here are some ideas for experiences to engage your baby at home?
Nature treasure baskets: Simply collect leaves, sticks, pine cones, stones, seeds and flowers, place them in a basket and watch the exploration unfold. Always be close by and ensure that all items are safe because we all know when a baby picks something up, it is going straight in their mouth. This mouthing response is how babies explore their world and make sense of objects.
Nature ice cubes: Collect natural items on your walks or from your garden such as leaves, berries or flowers (making sure they are safe to eat). Place them in ice cube trays, fill with water and freeze. Then sit back and watch the joy and wonder in your baby’s expression as the cubes unfreeze slowly in front of their eyes stimulating all the senses.
As children have more experience and understanding of the world around them, the opportunities for learning and exploration within nature continue to grow. Not only does it provide a myriad of free resources and experiences, but also aids in calming children and contributing to positive mental health. Simply allowing children to see, taste, smell, hear and touch the trees as you walk past, the sand under their feet or the texture of sticks they find along the way is a great start.
The environment itself, as well as natural resources and “treasures”, provide excellent opportunities to build on areas of development such as creativity, literacy and numeracy as well as STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). While out walking or playing at the beach, you can assist your child’s learning by encouraging them to count shells or birds, use leaves and sticks to write names and letters or use found “treasures” to create patterns with shapes and sizes. If you want to get even more creative, why not forage on your travels and set up some nature–play experiences at home.
What experiences could you engage your child in at home?
Potion making: Leaves, gumnuts and flowers make for great “potion” ingredients. You will need water, pots, bottles and spoons, and for a little more risk provide glass bottles for children to work with. The action of pouring, mixing and then seeing the colours change will spark more curiosity and creativity and is a relaxing experience that will have them captivated for hours.
Endless possibilities of a stick: Sticks can be just about anything you want them to be. Tie some leaves or foliage to the end and use them as a natural paintbrush or magic wand. Create a wind catcher using twine, leaves, flowers and nuts. Old fabric, twine and leaves can create a family of stick people to use for imaginative play. Sticks can make letters and numbers and to add some risk, allow your children to explore wood whittling using a potato peeler; this works best on smooth, softer sticks and be sure to supervise.
Nature crowns: A collection of “treasures” will do the trick along with cardboard and tape is all you need to create a special crown. Add scissors to the mix and allow children to build on their cutting skills and assess risk as they work with sharp objects.
At Alkira ELC when we take our children into nature, we make sure to acknowledge the traditional custodians of the land, the Darkinjung people and while we encourage our children and families to use natural resources, it is also important to be respectful of the land by only taking what is needed and no more; to walk softly and leave only footprints. The possibilities of learning in nature and what it gives to our heart, soul and overall wellness prove to be endless, and here on the Central Coast, we are spoilt for choice. So, let’s use this uncertain time in our lives to give us a wellness boost and some fun learning while we immerse ourselves in nature.