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Young children, the outdoors and nature
Young children, the outdoors and nature

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1.3 Froebel’s key ideas

Froebel’s writing offers real insights into his life and the context he was working in. It is worth thinking about what has changed and what has stayed the same since then. For example, babies and toddlers would not have attended a kindergarten – these were for children aged three and over – so when Froebel was writing about the youngest children, he was addressing parents not practitioners. His book Mother Play and Nursery Songs (1844) gives direction to mothers on how to engage with their children in play. However, his understanding of child development and what young children need to flourish may still be relevant. As you go through this session, you might want to think about context and the extent to which you think Froebel has relevance to current and future practice. What follows are three key points about the youngest children and their relationship to the natural environment that are based on Froebelian thinking as expressed in The Education of Man.

A pie chart with three slices: the first says ‘The importance of outdoor learning’. The second says ‘The importance of spending time in nature’. The third says ‘Nature can teach us about practice’.
Figure 3 Three key points in Froebel’s thinking

Key point 1: The importance of outdoor learning

Froebel prioritised outdoor experiences from birth. Although most often associated with the kindergarten, Froebel recognised the significance of the earliest period of childhood. He particularly emphasised the importance of the environment in which the youngest children (he called them ‘sucklings’) spend time. He argued that during this time, babies experience the world through their senses so there is a need to think about the sensory qualities of the spaces and places that they spend time in:

The quote reads: ‘the surroundings, however inadequate they might otherwise be, should be pure and clear - pure air, clear light, clear space’.

Key point 2: The importance of spending time in nature

Froebel believed nature contact, and a sense of unity, was fundamental to human health and wellbeing. Froebel particularly emphasised the importance of time spent from birth in natural outdoor environments. Indeed, nature is identified as ‘the chief point of reference’ for human development:

The quote reads: ‘Life in and with nature, and with the clear, still objects of nature must be fostered at this time by the parents and members of the family as the chief point of reference of the whole child-life.’

Key point 3: Nature can teach us about practice

For Froebel, nature offers a model for practice. Froebel also viewed children ‘as nature’, comparing their development to that of the young plants and animals within their environment. He notes the basic requirement for plants and animals to be given ‘space and time’ to develop properly ‘in accordance with the laws that live in them’ and calls us to apply this understanding to young children. Froebel promotes a gentle pedagogy based on close observation of the child and their interests arguing:

The quote reads: ‘nothing, therefore, is left for us to do with to bring him [sic] into relations and surroundings’.