Growing up, my husband and I were both fortunate to have childhoods filled with play that felt wild and free. From climbing trees to catching frogs and fireflies and skipping rocks in a river, we soaked up all of the moments that childhood had to offer without hesitation. I was raised in northern Minnesota and my husband grew up in Yellowstone National Park (yes, inside the park), but even with our different backgrounds, we both spent countless hours outdoors, playing, camping, fishing, hiking, and exploring.
Fast forward to today, where we find ourselves as parents, raising three daughters in an era where data shows that many kids spend more time in front of a screen than they do outdoors. We always knew we would raise our children to appreciate the great outdoors. From the time our first daughter was born, we viewed nature as the best playground possible.
My husband and I value the natural world so much that we registered one of our daughters for a nature-based preschool. Nature-based preschools are gaining popularity in the United States, but have long been a staple in other countries around the globe, namely Germany and Sweden. My daughter’s preschool focused on free play outside in various settings with an educational curriculum based on play and the natural world. Research (shown below) is now unearthing the numerous positive impacts from free play in natural settings. What child doesn’t love simple, unbridled, unstructured play in the great outdoors? Outdoor free play can have benefits such as:
- Supporting creativity and problem solving skills: Kids who play outside have more active imaginations and are more likely to be able to solve a complex problem than peers who spend most of their time inside. (Kellert, 2005)
- Multiple domain development: The opportunity to connect with nature helps kids develop socially, intellectually, emotionally, spiritually and physically. (Kellert, 2005)
- Improved social relations: Children who are free to explore the outdoors and engage in unstructured play are better able to get along with others — to cooperate, to lead and to follow. (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005)
- Increased likelihood to have pro-environmental behaviors: Kids who have the chance for nature activities and play before the age of 11 are more likely to recycle and turn off lights. (Wells and Lekies, 2006)
- Improved motor skills: Nature play can improve fine and grossmotor skills, leading to increased coordination. (Baker, Fuentes and McLane, 2011)
At first glance, what parent wouldn’t want these qualities and values and opportunities for their kids? Our daughter loved every minute of her time at her nature-based preschool. She thrived on the opportunity to let curiosity be her guide, to appreciate the fresh air and to respect the small miracles nature provides. She learned more about plants, animals, life cycles, and outdoor based activities than we thought was possible. She had the chance to go dog-sledding, watch duck eggs grow and hatch, and observe a monarch go from tiny egg to chrysalis to butterfly. She slept outside in the hammock village, covered by a mosquito net when the bugs were out. Weather didn’t deter her teacher or the other kids, even in the coldest of Minnesota days, they’d still be bundled up to go outside, even if it was just to walk to the mailbox. She grew tremendously and was heartbroken to graduate and head off to kindergarten. But we promised her that her adventures weren’t stopping; we encouraged her that our family experiences, while not taking place in the “Secret Forest,” could be a new adventure.
Now, we have always been a family that travels and we have always preferred to get off the beaten path. You typically won’t find us at an all-inclusive resort or at a major tourist destination. Our style is much more searching for the hidden gems. Pairing this style of travel with our daughter’s experiences has made travel all the richer. Her time at her outdoor-based preschool changed our travels so that we could use a similar style for adventures in the places we travel. While we didn’t necessarily change where we were traveling, we found ways to focus more on:
- Finding Junior Ranger programs at National and State Parks. This free program allows for children, typically between the ages of 5-13 (but anyone can participate!), to take part in a series of activities focused on learning about the ecosystem within the park you are in as well participating in a task led by a Park Ranger. Once you complete the program, you earn a badge and/or certificate.
- Geocaching our way through new locations. Have you geocached with your kids? Think of it as a giant, GPS or compass guided treasure hunt, built by other passionate explorers around the globe. A user can hide or seek caches, many filled with trinkets to collect. Caches can be located anywhere from hiking trails to neighborhoods and help showcase new places you may have never been before. It is a perfect way to explore anywhere in the world while introducing your kids to basic navigating skills. Learn more at geocaching.com. You can download an app for your phone to discover the millions of caches around the globe.
- Slowing down. We have made a concerted effort to allow for more time wherever we go, allowing our kids to dictate the pace of our exploring (within reason). Their curiosity can lead us and provides us a chance to have a deeper appreciation of wherever we are. Kids find the most amazing things to observe and ask questions about when you give them the time.
- Highlighting at risk locations. Not to get political, but current temperatures mean there are glaciers that are receding and other areas of our planet that are flooding. We have focused on how we can share these locations with our kids, while empowering them to work to make a difference on their own. After seeing the Mendenhall Glacier in Juneau, Alaska and learning about what increased temperatures are doing to the glacier from Park Rangers, our daughters asked us how they can make a difference so they can show that same glacier to their kids some day.
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Feeling the full force of nature and breathing it all in. Just Mother Earth 🌏 reminding us that she's in control 💪🏽🌴#momentsofmine #letthembelittle #littlefierceones #candidchildhood #childhoodunplugged #wildandfreechildren #letthekids #runwildmychild #thesincerestoryteller #happychildren #someonenotsomething #momswithcameras #clickinmoms #thechildrenoftheworld #magicofchildhood #illuminatechildhood #ig_motherhood #letthemexplore #wildandbravelittles #simplychildren #cameramama #momhub #mytinymoments #pixel_kids #documentyourdays #minibohemians #toddlerlife #igkiddies
We’ll continue to travel and explore our world while focusing on how we can integrate an appreciation for nature into each adventure as we are saw firsthand the positive effects nature-based play has. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “We can never have enough of nature,” and when it comes to the countless benefits nature play has on our children, I wholeheartedly agree.