Ecotourism sites are great places for developing environmental stewardship in young children by embedding nature play in their operations. Nature play offers an ideal way for getting young children interested in nature and its protection. Through free play, exploration, investigation and discovery, they are embodying the diversity of nature and thus, connecting with it.
Playing in natural environments helps children to understand nature and build a relationship with it which contributes to appreciating and valuing the natural world.
In my master’s thesis, I studied how play-based learning can promote conservation values for preschool children in an ecotourism site. The purpose of the study was to find out how to familiarise preschool children with nature and promote conservation through play. The results show that for preschool children to learn about the environment and establish conservation values, they need to love nature and build a positive relationship with it. The relationship can be established through regular experiences in nature, preferably in children’s local environments. One way for ecotourism sites to afford positive experiences in nature for preschool children is providing opportunities to engage in nature play.
Parents encouraging conservation
For ecotourism companies to contribute to promoting conservation values for preschool children, they need to attract families with young children to visit the place. Promoting their services for families, especially local families is
important. Ecotourism sites should be easily discovered and accessible, as well as provide child-friendly and low-threshold services and activities for parents and young children to experience nature together. As parents and guardians of the children have a crucial role in providing opportunities for young children to experience natural environments, it is important for ecotourism sites to appeal to parents and get them interested in visiting the site with their children.
The results of the study emphasise the role of adults in play-based learning that promotes conservation values for preschool children. Adults are not seen just as providers for nature play opportunities, but also as role models, mentors, facilitators, and supervisors in learning about conservation values. Parents and guardians of the children particularly have an important role in supporting and encouraging the interest in the natural world and conservation. If parents endorse children’s learning about conservation, not crushing or dismissing their enthusiasm about it, children feel empowered to protect nature. Also, it is important for parents and other important adults in children’s lives to be good role models and act in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way in their daily lives.
How can ecotourism promote nature play?
Then, what can ecotourism companies do to provide opportunities for nature play for young children? There are different ways of ecotourism sites to promote play in natural environments. They can:
- Designate a specific area for free nature play
- Build a nature-based playground or play area
- Organise nature playgroups for local families with young children
- Allow established playgroups and nature-based kindergartens (e.g. bush kindergartens) to use their designated space
- Embed nature play in their educational programs that run throughout the year or during holiday seasons (e.g. school holidays).
The results of the study suggest that for nature play to contribute to preschool children’s learning about nature and conservation, children need space to move around and explore using all their senses. They need to be able to investigate, touch things, get up close and personal with nature, and get dirty while playing. The learning environments should include a playful way of demonstrating different parts of the natural world, especially the interconnectedness of nature which is considered a message that preschool children need to understand in order to develop an interest in protecting the environment. Understanding that everything in nature is connected and that everything has its purpose and place on this planet is regarded essential.
How can children learn about conservation through play?
According to the results of the study, nature play opportunities for preschool children that promote conservation values should include:
- Activities such as climbing (trees), mud/dirt play, foraging and building cubbies, scavenger/treasure hunts, and bushwalking,
- Opportunities for children to participate in different types of play; conservation values can be promoted for example by creating a role model who children can pretend to be or play with (e.g. a national park ranger or wildlife hero)
- Nature-based playgrounds and play areas should be constructed in a way that encourages hands-on experiences and sensory play, have variety of play opportunities available, and contribute to healthy risk-taking.
The most preferred tool in promoting conservation values for preschool children through play is nature itself. Because nature is so diverse, it provides many ways for introducing the importance of conservation for young children.
This can be done e.g. by using animals and creatures, as well as different materials and objects from the natural environment (sticks, rocks, leaves etc.) as interpretive/learning tools, or applying different practices that can be conducted in nature (such as storytelling and sit spots). Children can use their imagination when playing with natural elements embodying the diversity of nature and thus, connecting with it. Generally, the “less is more” approach is suggested in promoting the importance of conservation for preschool children through nature play.