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

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3.2 Spending time in natural environments

Natural environments can offer multi-sensory stimulation and are also fascinating for children. Remember the practitioners in Hall et al.’s paper (2014) (in Session 1) who noticed that the babies ‘used their eyes, hands, feet, mouths and entire bodies to experience the minutiae’ (p. 198). These interactions with the natural environment provide multi-sensory stimulation which has a different impact on the nervous system to an indoor environment and is really important for young children’s healthy development and sense of well-being.

There is an interesting theory called Attention Restoration Theory (ART) which explains how spending time in natural environments can help the parts of the brain that have become fatigued from concentrating on cognitive tasks; such an environment helps the brain to recover. They have been found to offer ‘soft fascination’, which allows your attention to recover through the opportunity for reflection and the exploration of other thoughts (Kaplan and Kaplan, 1995). While this research has not included very young children, it is easy to see the way in which babies and toddlers can be fascinated by aspects of the natural world.

Look at Figure 6 and see the ‘soft fascination’ that the young child has as she is engrossed by the peeling bark of the tree.

A toddler peeling bark off a tree.
Figure 6 Fascination with nature.

In a study of a setting in Melbourne, Australia, Morrissey et al. (2015) compared the responses of babies and toddlers to the affordances of both natural and built play spaces. They noticed that in the natural space, the children spent more time engaged in quiet and sedentary activities, as well as a wide variety of physical activities. The researchers also noted increased engagement with the natural world:

… children were observed sitting or standing still, peacefully observing a bee flying around the plants or branches swaying in the breeze.

(Morrissey at al., 2015, p. 49)

This suggests that natural environments have properties that are particularly well suited to the development needs of very young children. As one practitioner in the research of Kemp and Josephidou noted:

The natural environment provides the exact stimulus that babies need without being too overpowering. Outdoor environments provide opportunities for babies to use all their senses to explore them.