Nature is a priceless gift from God and it is significant for children’s learning and development. Personally, the natural environment had a substantial role in my early learning and development. I had memories of my childhood, playing with natural materials through manipulation, observation and exploration. My childhood was enjoyable as I had opportunities to play outside with natural materials. For instance, climbing trees, playing with mud and stones and many more. Interaction with materials in the natural environment individually and with my peers developed my curiosity, imagination, coordination, communication, creativity and so on. Exposure to the natural environment fosters my learning by inculcating my life skills such as resilience, building caring relationship, problem-solving and so on.
Chitral is blessed with its rich natural environment such as mountains, rivers, plants, animals just to name few. Nature provides wonderful opportunities for children’s learning and their holistic development. Holistic development means to nurture children’s cognitive, physical, socio-emotional, moral and language domains. Unfortunately, with the modernization and schooling system children have been detached from the natural environment. The reason is that children are shut behind the classroom doors because of early schooling. After school children attend religious education centres, complete their homework and watch the screens. Thus, children are alienated and detached from the natural environment which leads them to overlook and devalue this great gift of God. The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation by restricting children to their homes because of school closure which may lead children towards physical and psychological issues if not tackle tactfully. Therefore, parents and families need to understand the importance of the natural environment in the holistic development of their children
Importance of natural environment in children development
The natural environment provides children opportunities to play, develop them holistically and connect them with nature. Play is the basic right of children and interaction with natural environments provide them with opportunities for free play.
It is a dilemma that some educators and families in Chitral misinterpret the notion of play as wastage of time and suggest utilizing the time on academics in a controlled way inside the classrooms under the instructions of teachers. Research on early childhood education demonstrates that play is the highest form of research and it engages children actively in their learning through interaction with the natural world around them. Through play, children interact with natural resources and develop their creativity, imagination, cognition, socio-emotional and communication skills.In a supportive natural environment,children make choices, therefore, develop their critical thinking, decision making and problem-solving skills. The complex forms of free play in natural environments expose children to certain types of risks and develop the skills of risk management and resilience. Through play, children understand and develop their capabilities and make valuable discoveries about their physical, social and cultural environments.
Through play-based learning children improve their cognitive skills such as consciousness, reasoning, observation, creativity, concentration, comprehension and imagination in correspondence with nature. Nature-filled outdoor environments develop children’s natural curiosities, scientific thinking and inquiry-based learning. Besides that, natural environments are critical to engage, challenge, stimulate and provoke children abilities and enhance their learning. In a natural environment, children engage in multi-sensory activities, relate abstract concepts with real-life experiences using critical thinking and problem-solving skills. Similarly, natural materials capture children’s attention and propose a distinctive stimulus for creativity, divergent thinking, and problem-solving.
Connecting children with nature develop their socio-emotional skills, self-esteem, and confidence and promote more courteous behaviour in them. In a natural environment, children interact with natural materials which gives them the freedom to express their emotions towards nature and develop their skills of conservation and environmental education. More importantly, it connects children with nature and develops their empathy towards people, animals, and plants. Through interaction with nature and natural resources, children develop a sense of self, regulate their feelings, understand and respond to other emotions and needs in a positive way. Interaction with natural resources build children’s immunity, restorative health and overall well-being. It develops children’s motor skills, coordination and recovers them from sickness. The identification of objects names develops children’s vocabularies. The interaction with natural outdoor environments connect children with their land and give them opportunities to learn about its diversity, natural habitat, and climatic conditions.
Vise versa the analysis of research demonstrates that disconnection with nature leads children towards nature deficit disorder, diminished senses, attention difficulties and disassociation from nature. Thus, nature and nurture go hand in hand and connection with nature determined children’s development and develop their love for nature. Likewise, disconnection with nature results in poor health and ill-being in children. Therefore, as parents, we have to provide opportunities to play in natural outdoor environments and give them balanced opportunities between academic and free play. However, adult supervision is critical for children security and also extend their learning.
Some ways to engage children with natural environment
- Take children outside and let them play with soil, stones, sticks, leaves and so on.
- Encourage children to observe and talk about natural habitat. For example, trees, animals, landscape etc.
- Discuss natural disasters and ask them to think for their mitigation.
- Engage children with you while working in the field, vegetable patch, grazing cattle etc. and give them the knowledge, skills and values about them.
- Let the children study insects, animals and plants then ask them to draw, name, differentiate, classify and many more.
- Teach science by letting children observe, experiment and inquire about things in the environment.
- Teach language and social skills by naming objects and talking about their food and habitat.
- Teach mathematics by encouraging them to perform number operation, studying and identifying shapes, patterns and so on.