Can we build resilience in our children through nature?

Posted on 01 March 2021

Can we build resilience in our children through nature? Michelle Carrick, Council’s Manager of Children and Family Services, reckons we can.

Marrying her passions for teaching kids and environmental education, Michelle has been delving into the long-lasting benefits that play-based learning and ecological experiences have on a growing person’s wellbeing and academic success.

We talked to Michelle to find out more...

Why is environmental awareness especially important for children under 5?

Environmental awareness supports the development of children’s world view. These days the earth and its resources are often seen only from an economic perspective, which is leading us towards climate change and mass species extinction.  Experts tell us that environmental awareness in early childhood fosters qualities of conservation, protection, and stewardship. And this will impact how children experience life and their role in the world and its future.

Tell us what ‘nature play’ means in terms of early childhood education, and why you think it is now more crucial than ever?

Nature play is about fostering our children’s understanding of how all forms of life are interdependent; through hands-on activities and lessons.

Nature play is multi-sensory which enhances the development of neural connections for cognitive development such as lateral thinking and problem-solving skills. An immersion with time and place through sensory awareness builds a mind and heart connection including intuition needed for resilience to support self-regulation.

The need for this kind of learning is becoming increasingly prevalent as our society becomes more urbanized, sedentary and digitalized, and our connection to the natural world becomes lost. There’s also a wealth of research telling us that time in nature leads to wellbeing, health and happiness.

Sensory development is particularly important for children from birth to 2 years, the most rapid time for neural development. Artificial environments can inhibit sensory awareness.  

A child’s connection to the natural world with its unlimited opportunities for learning through play builds imagination, creativity and curiosity. These are essential to a holistic learning experience that supports critical thinking and higher levels of reasoning.

How are you applying these principles in the early childhood services that Waverley Council offers?

  • Waverley Children’s Services consists of a Family Day Care service which supports 30 educators across the LGA and 4 Early Education Centres – we are implementing several ecological projects to support the development of children’s connection to the natural world as part of our RAP.
  • At the Waverley Community Garden we are implementing a ‘Caring for Country’ program where children and teachers are engaging in education through an experiential immersion on the importance of earth care.
  • Gardiner EEC has installed a native bee hive as an education tool for children, and two of our other services have received funding to install native bee hives this year.
  • Each of our services are Eco-Smart through our partnership with ECEEN (Early Childhood Environmental Education Network) to support our ongoing sustainably goals.

Council are also ensuring specific early childhood educational aspects through the SkyParks project, which will create unique social and visual spaces on underutilised rooftop spaces to cool surface temperatures, increase biodiversity and reduce air pollution. More info here

What advice would you offer to families looking to build resilience through nature for kids of all ages?

Make time regularly to hang in the garden, visit local parks, go for bushwalks, and visit nature-play playgrounds (like Centennial Park’s Wild Play Garden). Children need time to take in the sounds, sights and smells to develop skills in listening and observation, and for overall wellbeing and development.

This is amplified when nature play is experienced with intention alongside a significant adult (parent, grandparent, teacher, educator). It also need not be structured. In fact, unstructured play in nature can be beneficial to a child’s cognitive development, when a lot of other learning environments are ‘controlled’ and rigid.

Check out these good books on the subject, and different perspectives on the importance of nature play to cognitive, emotional, and social development: 

  • ‘The Goodness of Rain: Developing an Ecological Identity in Young Children’ - Ann Pelo.
  • ‘Let the children play: How more play will save our schools and help children thrive’ - Pasi Sahlberg & William Doyle
  • ‘50 Risks to take with your kids: A guide to building resilience and independence in the first 10 years’ – Daisy Turnbull
  • ‘The Nature Principle (Reconnecting with Life in a Virtual Age) and Vitamin N (The essential guide to a nature rich life)’ – Richard Louv

More about Michelle 

Michelle Carrick is an experienced Early Childhood practitioner and program author with a demonstrated history of leading environmental education within the early childhood and primary education sector. Michelle’s current role is Manager Children & Family Services at Waverley Council. Currently studying her Master of Education (Social Ecology) at Western Sydney University her research draws on her expertise in early childhood and environmental education, including the importance of relationships and community connectivity. Michelle has a strong passion for earth care, play based learning and eco-pedagogy. Michelle completed a Permaculture Design Certificate in 2010. In 2018 Michelle spent time in the remote Aboriginal community of Nauiyu on the Daly River to learn the deep listening practice of Dadirri.

You may like to read her article on the importance of play and imagination as being critical components to overall academic success.

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