As I walk around a department store on a busy Friday afternoon I cannot help but feel bombarded by the overwhelming collection of bold and obnoxious toys wailing at me. Tempting as these bright and noisy objects may be, I must admit they make me feel anything but calm.
Can you imagine then how these may feel to the senses of a baby or young child? Exciting for a moment maybe, but overwhelming the next. I find myself in this moment reflecting on how much calmer I feel when back in our own home. As a family we have been on a mission for a while now to slow down many areas of our lives, simplifying and taking stock of the important things. We have been giving much thought to refocusing our time and energy, choosing to invest in activities that fulfil us, rather than run us down. These changes for us have included removing and simplifying our outdoor and indoor play spaces, decluttering the house of unnecessary items and removing activities from our family schedule which were not proving to be as beneficial as hoped. Although this shift is ever changing and ongoing, the benefits thus far have been noticeable and so very positive.
The concept of slow living and the benefits of loose parts and nature based sensory play are certainly not new by any means. These areas have been well researched and supported by many modes and models of education for decades and written about by many authors new and old. Montessori, Steiner and even areas of conventional learning and early childhood education and development advocate for simplified environments and natural learning resources and materials. In our homes and backyards though, many of us find ourselves surrounded by conventional alternatives – over run by cheaper to buy, easier to find toys and activities which are flashed in front of our eyes every ad break and junk mail day. So where can we start in our homes to bring back more nature play both inside and outside to benefit our babies right up to our pre-schoolers and beyond? The first stop for inspiration, of course, would be tapping into the wonderful resources of Nature Play QLD and utilising the tools and play lists created especially for this purpose – to inspire more outdoor free play.
Beyond that, we made some changes to our home starting indoors. In our daughters' play room we are now surrounded by items such as baskets of rocks, pine cones, seed pods and other natural loose parts, some recycled dried herb jars filled with fresh herbs and a basket of different textured fabrics such as cotton squares, wool, and sheep skin cut offs. We have stored away excess toys, given some away to charity and put the remaining into rotation with boxes numbered accordingly. This simplification has many advantages; it keeps the play space simple; it is still inviting and interesting, and best of all it's easier to tidy! Hooray! We have found that the simple nature based alternatives have managed to engage both my children (4 and 19 months) just as adequately as any of their more boisterous counterparts. The imaginative play with loose parts has been wonderful, has encouraged more freely chosen play for both of our children, and the story telling by miss 4 has been an absolute joy to listen to. Miss 19 months has also been very engrossed with the textures, different weights and shapes of many loose items, combining her play with play dough and independent exploration – and this is just indoors.
Making time and making memories
From this small change and its outcomes, I decided to read more and ponder further the benefits of slowing down our play, removing more of the conventional ‘toys’ and increasing nature based play in our everyday lives. Now to be honest, this has not been a monumental shift for our family as we already aim to spend more than 3 hours a day outside everyday – even with our 19 month old. We have aimed for wooden and more natural toys in our play spaces since day dot, but despite this focus we still seemed to have accumulated an array of conventional toys nonetheless.
Outside, in the realm of our suburban backyard we are like many families. We have bikes and scooters, a trampoline and a cubby, not to mention a sandpit and a plethora of random balls and bats. On top of this we have the great bonus of several vegetable and herb gardens, a wonderful fairy garden and some friendly if occasionally bossy chickens. Although this selection certainly encourages our girls outside and helps them enjoy plenty of outside time, we try to get out of the yard and into the big wide world as much as possible. Getting away from the ‘stuff’ has really encouraged our girls to explore, ask questions and grow their confidence in the great outdoors. We have been going on regular hikes, bike rides and spend more time slowing down and just enjoying the beach or the park, and minimising the often unnecessary junk we have been known to cart along.
Nature play for babies
For babies in nature, nothing is needed. Nothing at all. It is through their senses that babies and young children engage with their environment most. From those little ones, not yet mobile, to those who are starting to move about, the exploration and learning is so very simple and yet so powerful. Listening to bird songs, pointing at the clouds, touching the grass, toes in the sand, splashing the waves. It is all learning and it is beautifully simple.
In his book The Power of Play, author and psychologist David Elkind PH.D aptly states "playful experimentation with hands, feet and senses is thus the dominant mode of mastery for the infant. It is time-consuming and requires effort and cannot be hurried". By allowing our babies and young children to actively explore their environments through their whole body and all senses, without the distraction of ‘toys’, it encourages their natural curiosity to prosper. Slowing down and providing time for little ones to explore interests of their own choosing, the warmth of wood, the cool feel of winter waves and the shushing sound of the ocean, an orchestra of soothing natural sounds all together. How could this be anything but a soothing balm on the soul?
How often do we find ourselves caught short on time and rushing our children from one activity to the next? Weekends choc-a-block with activities, birthday parties and errands. We might pop to the playground or park for an hour, busily multitasking morning tea with ‘play-time’, squeezed in between one stop or another. I know we do this sometimes and can’t say its much fun for us adults and usually results in our children protesting loudly when we signal that time is up. This is one area of our journey towards slowing down that we are still working on. On the more recent occasions, we have set aside a really decent chunk of time to get outside with our girls and just enjoy nature. We have planned whole afternoon adventures, not rushing off – but really taking our time. We have all enjoyed it immensely. This has also allowed us to widen our field of play and exploration – going out of town a little and seeing places we haven’t made time for in the past. We have not just enjoyed the experience but really connected as a family. Afterwards we have enjoyed retelling the adventures over dinner together and for our eldest daughter the details seem clearer and plumper than shorter excursions – told with excitement and a new flavour of gusto. A great outcome for all.
Author, psychologist and parenting educator Robin Grille put it well when she said "as adults we are so full of purpose, plans and responsibilities, so outcomes orientated that we forget how to take pleasure from life". So let us take stock of these wise words, and perhaps this weekend we might choose to not be so hurried, and not rush our babies through their explorations. Allow time for our families, and freedom to our children especially, to become fully engrossed in their nature play experiences.
Let’s decide to just sit and observe, but most importantly to slow down and smell the roses.
David Elkind, The Power of Play, Da Capo Press (2007) USA (P105)
Robin Grille, Heart to Heart Parenting, Harper Collins Publishers (2008) Australia (P197)