Play with the Natural Environment : From One Mamma to Another

Today, we live in a society where children and adults are increasingly cut off from and deprived of time with nature. How can we expand our understanding of outdoor play and understand the importance of children playing with nature?

We have a Montessori Mamma of an 18 month old from Bangalore, India sharing how children can explore the outdoors and develop a sense of belonging with the natural world.

Hi Karuna, tell us about yourself and your family.

Thank you for having me on Srishti. I am from Hyderabad, India and currently settled in Bangalore with my husband and our daughter, Urvi. My mother was a Montessori guide and that inspired me to become a certified Montessori teacher. Being aware of the Montessori philosophy, my husband and I chose to adopt it at home. It is a way of life and has empowered us as parents in so many ways. 

Can you describe Urvi’s home environment with some details about different parts of her home such as the living room, bedroom, bath, kitchen and dining?

Living Room : At the foyer, we have a child-sized chair set up for her to be able to sit down, put on or take off her socks and shoes. We keep two pairs of shoes tucked under the chair and the socks come from her wardrobe. Adjacent to the living room, we have an entertainment room with a few age-appropriate activities and an indoor slide set up for her. 

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Bedroom : Although we co-sleep, ever since she was mobile, we moved her onto a floor bed to facilitate independence. We have a small area set up with books and 2-3 activities for her to choose from while she is getting ready to tuck in for the night. We also have a changing station that includes a child-sized chair, a laundry basket, dustbin and a table with all the necessary supplies for her to access. At the dressing area, she has access to her comb, tissues to wipe herself, bindis and a few  hair bands if she wishes to wear one. 

Bathroom : Our bathroom setup is still a work-in-progress. At the moment, we are in the toilet learning phase and the door is always open for her to access. We have a floor potty chair, if she chooses to sit on it. As she has been showing interest in the water closet, we have a training seat on it as well. We are yet to set up a stool for her to be able to wash her hands independently. Meanwhile. we help her up at the wash basin to wash her hands. We’ve also kept a small towel for her to dry her hands once she is done. 

Kitchen & Dining : We converted an old step-stool into a kitchen helper in order to facilitate independence in the kitchen. Few of her utensils such as plates, glasses and spoons and snacks are arranged in an IKEA play kitchen. We also have a few cleaning utensils like a dustpan, brush, mop cloth and mopping stick handy for her to use when there is a spill. 

At mealtime, she has a choice between eating at her child-sized table and chair or at our table. She sits on the high chair or bar stool when she is at the table. 

Tell us a little about Urvi’s daily routine.

On a typical day, Urvi’s day starts between 6 and 7 am. Changing her diaper, offering to sit on the toilet and brushing her teeth are the three things that we try to be consistent with. If she resists, we come back when she is ready. 

Mornings are usually rushed, but she is involved in meal preparation, if it is simple (like idly or rice roti). She spends time with her father either reading books, listening to music, putting away laundry or going outside. Between 8 and 9 am, she has her breakfast followed by a bath. 

Between 10am and 12 pm, we do a sensory activity, listen to music or if the weather permits, we explore our outdoors and have a snack in-between. By 1pm she has her lunch. Usually, she takes a nap for an hour or two between 2 and 4 pm. Post 4pm, we run errands, do household chores, visit a park or do an activity at home like art, food preparation or dance. By 7pm, she has her dinner and bath around 8.30pm. Before going to bed, we spend sometime reading or singing a few songs. 

What constitutes Urvi’s outdoor environment?

We live in an ancestral house and are fortunate to have a back and front yard. The front yard has a few potted plants and a lawn. The backyard is mostly concrete floor with a patch of lawn. 

What are some ways in which Urvi explores the outdoors?

At present, she is drawn to movement, especially climbing, and loves climbing anything she can. An example being, the gate or stairs or a ramp. She enjoys following ants, butterflies and snails. At one point, she loved plucking leaves and flowers but now she prefers putting them in her mouth. Outdoor time has been an opportunity for trial and errors. Just the other day when we were outside, she put her thermic sense to use and started standing at different areas to check the heat. Our outdoor environment has been a wonderful source of repetition and concentration. 

What kind of outdoor activities do you set up for Urvi? How do you change them according to her needs and interests?

In the front yard, we have two buckets of different colours, a wheelbarrow and a watering can. One bucket is used to fill water for watering plants and the other bucket is for collecting dried or fallen leaves. The collected leaves are used for our fir trees as compost.

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In the backyard, we have rice flour for doing rangoli, bubble solution, primary coloured clothes pegs which she uses while drying clothes. We also use the pegs as an open-ended toy to form different shapes. We have some coloured chalk to go wild on the floor and refine her fine motor skills, a bowl and brush to paint with water on the floor and also a small scooter to scuttle around. 

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Our small patch of lawn has a concrete boundary and Urvi uses it as a balance beam. One of her preferred activities is to climb up the ramp, drop a ball and watch it roll. If there is something she is trying to master, I try to incorporate it in the outdoors or indoors. 

We love spending time in the outdoors doing sensory and art based activities. We spend some quiet time outside as well to observe and listen to our surroundings. We do sound mapping – since she still can’t put her thoughts on paper, we track sounds by pointing in the direction of it. If we find an insect, snail or butterfly that is idle, we try to observe it in proximity. 

How do you cultivate a love for plants and caring for them in Urvi?

The way she interacts with plants has changed over time. At one point, she had this strong urge to pull, pluck and yank flowers and leaves. Although, I gave her opportunities to satisfy her need to pull, my husband and I constantly modelled gentleness and mindfulness towards everything that needs to be dealt with care. Now, at 18 months, she is slowly aware of the fact that weeds need to be plucked, flowers can be plucked for use, herbs can be cut for cooking and everything in the garden needs nurturing. 

Do you regularly give her experiences of other outdoor environments that involve fresh air, plant care and natural exploration? How do you manage to find such places in buzzing, urban cities?

Almost 3-4 times a week, we go to different children’s parks in and around our locality. At least once a week, we go to the market to buy fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers. There are days when we simply go for a stroll on the roads near our home (you will be surprised with the amount of things that catches our attention). To be honest, living in the city is quite a challenge in terms of finding age-appropriate places to explore with her, but through friends and social media, we find interesting places and events to explore at times. 

In what ways, do you think Urvi has benefitted from the outdoors?

I feel that spending time outdoors has helped her to be physically active. All the experiences outdoors, from her crawling days to walking now, has helped her to develop good balance, agility and coordination. At times, I find her in bouts of deep concentration. She seems to be aware of her surroundings and has good observation skills. Most of all, I feel it has helped her to be a calm and collected child. 

As a parent, why  do you think it is important for young children to spend considerable time outdoors, amidst nature?

Having exposed Urvi to spending time outdoors since birth, I feel that it has been the best stimulus for all the senses. The child is constantly evolving and nature has the power to constantly cater to the child’s developing needs. Being in nature is the perfect opportunity to observe the natural habitat for animals, notice changes in seasons, enjoy the cycle of plant growth. Supporting the child’s experiences and exploration through precise language nurtures their learning further. The foundation for all the sciences is rooted in nature and the best thing we can do as adults is to give them the time and expose them to different situations and places. 

Can you share a few guidelines with other parents on how to set up an outdoor environment for young children? (both apartments as well as independent houses)

For most parents, the biggest challenge is knowing what activities to offer to their children when it comes to the outdoors. Although there is no particular list to refer to, I believe irrespective of age, it’s wonderful to expose our children to gardening and composting. For a lot of us, gardening can be quite intimidating but for young children all you need is a pot, soil, seeds and water. It may grow, it may not, weeds may come, worms can come, the plant might die – it’s all an opportunity to learn.

For the ones who do not have enough outdoor space, they can consider bringing outdoor elements into the indoor space. A few easy-to-maintain and safe indoor plants for the child to take care of or a few herbs by the windowsill, a bird feeder, art, water play and open-ended loose parts (chips of wood, stones etc.) to explore can be other things to consider.

The Difference between Unstructured Outdoor Play and Outdoor Play Structures

What is Play?

The word play brings to mind exploring something with an open mind, discovering its properties, understanding what it can or cannot do and forming new ideas. For the child under six, play is a bridge that links them to the world. This play is the work of the child and through it, they form many new ideas about the world while also understanding themselves and their endless capabilities.

Outdoor play is an important aspect of play that introduces to the young child the wonders of the natural world. 

“Play is motivated by means more than ends. Play is constantly evolving and developing into new forms of play and play schemes. Play is also not passive but requires constant assessment and engaged minds.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

Unstructured Outdoor Play

The word unstructured by itself removes limitations on the child’s exploration of the outdoors. The outdoor environment has so much sensory stimuli that unstructured play allows the child to choose which stimulus they would like to be drawn to.

  • Bonding with Nature

In today’s world which is crowded by tall buildings, endless traffic and busy schedules, outdoor play provides a respite to the young child. It slows down time just a little bit, allowing them to freely play in the natural surroundings. This kind of play in the outdoors without all the layers of human touch is vital for the child to form a lasting relationship with nature.

  • Dynamic Challenges

When we leave the child to freely explore the natural world, they can set their own challenges depending on the stage of development they are in. A baby might simply be on a patch of grass, crawling and watching a butterfly or grasping a flower while a toddler might choose run on the grass, feed birds and pick fallen leaves. Older children with more controlled movements are free to set more complex challenges such as climbing trees, hiking up a steep slope or running and playing with the dog.

This kind of structure-free play frees up the mind to set challenges for oneself and devise strategies to overcome them.

Structure-Free Outdoor Play
  • Sharpening Judgement

Imagine the young child in a natural environment and think of the endless possibilities for building judgement. As adults, we sometimes forget that the child is building judgement through play. Every interaction such as crawling to a leaf, trying to catch a dragonfly, getting pricked by a thorn, feeling the prickly grass, falling down while running or jumping high for the branch with the fruit calls for calculation. These are essential for the child to hone and a structure-free natural environment will do a lot to constantly challenge the young child’s judgement.

  • Vivid Imagination

Because of the range of sensory input the child receives by playing outdoors, the abstractions they form are diverse. These lay a strong foundation for the budding imagination. An older child will begin to show signs of this imagination when they use leaves as medicines in their imaginary play, twigs as huts, straw for water boats and so on. This imagination which is more manifest in the older child has its foundation in that small baby who plays with the outdoor environment and understands it.

Outdoor Play Structures

Outdoor play structures on the other hand are specially designed structures to challenge young children’s gross motor skills, their vestibular sense and overall mind-body coordination. Some commonly found structures are swings and slides, merry-go-round, jungle gyms and climbing domes.

  • Fixed Challenges

Each of the play structures are created for a specific challenge. For example, the slide is designed for the child to climb/crawl up the ladder using calculated movements and then slide down at full speed. While sliding down, the child’s vestibular sense is stimulated.  The same goes for most other commonly found play structures. They are designed for fixed challenges and do not hold the same openness as natural environments with dynamic challenges.

  • Not Exactly Outdoor Play

While swings and slides which are large equipments fit better in an outdoor environment, they are not necessarily outdoor play. There is no element of nature involved in this play apart from some fresh air which comes naturally by being outdoors.

  • No Room for Imagination

A swing or a slide or merry-go-round does not challenge the child’s inner need for exploration. Play is something that must show different dimensions with each exploration. Imagine adults calling a treadmill or an elliptical ‘play’. These are specific gym equipments designed for specific purposes. Likewise, the outdoor park structures are specific equipments designed to serve specific purposes and they do not do anything else to feed the child’s imagination.

Why is it Important to Understand the Difference?

These days, when we use the word outdoor play, it somehow immediately translates to play in park structures. As we have seen, outdoor play is so much more than playing on a swing or climbing a jungle gym. Although play structures help challenge the child’s gross motor skills, they do not necessarily feed other areas of development which a natural, unstructured play environment fosters. While it is necessary for us to take our children to the neighbourhood park to challenge their gross motor skills, it is also equally important to plan and take our children to natural settings with raw nature unfolding. The structured outdoor parks with plastic grass, wood chips and foam mats are not the same as the uneven outdoor trails,the hilly slopes with wild flowers and shrubs, the stones and gravel which make the play a lot more challenging.  

“Playing in nature adds an element of adventure. Nature is unpredictable and exploring nature is always an exciting experience. Since playground equipment only serves a few functions, it often leaves little to the imagination. Having access to movable natural items, such as branches, rocks, sticks, leaves and pinecones adds a new element to play. Natural playgrounds tend to inspire creative play in children because there are endless play opportunities.”

Angela J. Hanscom, Balanced & BareFoot

When we expand our understanding of outdoor play, we will begin to look beyond the park fences and understand that outdoor play is the beginning of a lifetime of friendship, love and oneness with the natural world.