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How Playing in Nature Builds Social-Emotional Skills

How Playing in Nature Builds Social-Emotional Skills

“They are not just playing in nature, they are: learning, creating, sensing, believing, relaxing, exploring, observing, wondering, connecting, discovering, appreciating, understanding, experimenting….”
– Penny Whitehouse

Free play, especially in nature, can have a powerfully positive impact on how kids develop social and emotional skills. Just look at all the skills Penny mentions in the quote above.

Even 10 minutes of playing outside can be really beneficial for a child.

Keep reading to find out why!

How Nature Makes a Difference

Imagine this: A park with lots of epic trees to climb and explore. A child at the park wants to climb a tree. While this might make a caregiver nervous – this opportunity is special. Why?

When the child starts climbing, they may be excited. You can ask questions like “which branch would be the strongest to grab onto next?”. They could also start to feel scared or nervous. They get a chance to listen to their body, manage emotions, problem-solve, and practice risk management. If other kids are watching, they can practice empathy and encourage others.

The outdoors provide a different experience for the senses.

Nature can be calming, and provide a great change of scenery from being indoors or on screens for extended amounts of time. If strong or difficult emotions arise when kids play outside, there is much more room to work through them. Sometimes digging in the dirt for a few minutes is all a child needs to express their emotion and calm their body back down to a relaxed state.

Playing outdoors requires way less structure – there are no walls after all.

lack of structure inspires more creativity in kids. There are endless imaginative possibilities when playing in nature.

Robert Louv, a scientist at CASEL (the leading Social Emotional Learning research group), adds a perfect example:

“When children play in natural spaces, they’re far more likely to invent their own games than in more structured settings – a key factor in becoming self-directed and inventive adults later in life”

Outside, kids get to navigate interactions they may not have indoors.

example of this is dirt or sand play. It’s a super fun sensory experience….and sometimes kids throw dirt at each other. This allows them to discuss boundaries and emotions. It also helps them practice self-awareness and empathy.

Even animal and plant interactions help build social and emotional skills.

Being aware (and respectful to) animals and plants can help with body awareness, empathy, and responsibility.

Let’s wrap it up!

Play is learning. Being outside can make the benefits and impact of that learning even stronger. Encourage your child to play outside freely as much as you can.

We understand that not everyone has the same access to outdoor spaces. Any natural space, such as a small park, will still offer the same powerful play benefits.

We’ll leave you with one last quote that we love so much!

“No barefooted, tree climbing, frog holding, mud pie baking, cloud spotting, puddle stomping, bird calling, wild foraging, star gazing, firefly chasing, den building, stream paddling, rock hunting moment with Mother Earth is ever wasted.”

– Nicolette Sowder

Remy Bessolo
Author and Forest School Educator


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