Nurturing Children’ Spirituality Through Outdoor Play
Student aged five: “I just want to play and play outside all day and don’t want to go inside!”
Student aged four: “I play with my classmates and it makes me feel better when my classmates are outside and we go to the slide, swing, monkey bars and we go run.”
Student aged three: “The garden outside makes me so happy. We take turns on the playground. Going outside makes me sweaty. We take turns playing outside. It makes me happy because we play together like games when we run.”
These comments were made by preschool children while engaging in outdoor play at a preschool when their teacher asked them about outdoor play. Yet, today’s children have less opportunities to play outdoors for many reasons: Societal changes in modes of entertainment, busy adult schedules (James, 2017; Rivikin, 2014), the lack of outdoor play opportunities (Charles & Louv, 2009; Rivikin, 2014), pollution (Rivkin, 2014), the continuous threat of terrorist attacks in the world, and increased academic pressures on children and educators contribute to decreasing outdoor play time for children and cause stressful childhoods (Chawla, 2012: Izumi-Taylor & Scott, 2013; Morrison, 2015). These environmental fears and stress negatively influence children’s lives very early (Wynn, 2008).
Although early childhood educators cannot completely protect children from these epidemics of violence, they can support children’s spirits of living by providing them with ample opportunities to play outdoors (Baumgartner & Buchanan, 2010; Blain & Eady, 2002; Chawla, 2012; Izumi-Taylor & Scott, 2013; Rivkin, 2014). Supporting children’s abilities to cope with stress is one of the teacher’s important roles in early childhood classrooms (Chawla, 2012; Fallin, Wallinga, & Coleman, 2001; Wolf, 2000). To support the development of the whole child, nature is the best way to do this (Rich, 2010). Nurturing children’s sprits refers to “developing and supporting the vital core of human nature” (Izumi-Taylor & Scott, 2013, p.38). Nurturing children’s development through outdoor play is not about imposing on religious beliefs (Baumgartner & Buchanan, 2010), but it is about offering developmentally appropriate outdoor environments where children can learn and enjoy authentic lessons about “caring for others, being part of a community, and working to create positive change” (Baumgartner & Buchanan, 2010, p. 91).
This paper describes information about how early childhood educators can promote and nurture children’s spirits though the use of outdoor play. We will offer some suggestions using outdoor play as a strategy that teachers might use to nurture children’s spirits based on the three components described by Baumgartner and Buchanan (2010): a sense of belonging, respect for oneself and others, and awareness and appreciation of the unknown. We will present the importance of the development of children’s spirits first and explain how outdoor play fosters such development of children related to the three components mentioned above. Also, we will include some helpful outdoor play activities that teachers can offer.
The Importance of Developing Children’s Spirits through Outdoor Play
Nurturing children’s spirits relates to the development of their compassion, love, forgiveness, peacefulness, empathy, generosity, and tolerance (Montessori, 1972; Wolf, 2000). Teachers are required to intentionally address all aspects of a child’s development, including spirituality (Baumgartner & Buchanan, 2010; Harris, 2007). “A new type of reciprocal, spiritual curriculum between children and teachers needs to take place within our classrooms” (Harris, 2007, p. 267). When intentionally nurturing the whole child, teachers support children’s physical, cognitive, and emotional development, including spirituality (Copple & Bredekamp, 2009; Morrison, 2015). Similarly, teachers ought to integrate all domains of developing the whole child by including intellectual, social, and affective domains of learning (Davis, Rea, Waite, 2006; Epstein, 2007; Harris, 2007; Morrison, 2015; Rivkin, 2014; Torquati, Gabriel, Jones-Branch, & Leeper-Miller, 2010).
To support children’s all domains of development, offering children opportunities to play outdoors for five-to-10 hours a week can be helpful inducing their development of spirituality (Pedersen, 2014; Nauert, 2015). Preschoolers who regularly play outside have more opportunities to be physically active (Spencer & Wright, 2014). When children go outside to play, it allows them exuberance and playfulness of nature itself (Lewis, 2007). Grob (2007) stresses the importance of outdoor play because nature offers compelling opportunities for exploration and experimentation. When young children partake in outdoor play, their play experiences are greater than manufactured toys in an indoor setting (Grob, 2007). Gross motor skills are also developed through outdoor play exposure. The natural world offers irresistible opportunities for climbing, running and child-directed manipulation. Equally important to gross motor development is the social and emotional development that young children acquire through outdoor play. Their abilities to relate creatively with others expand in the natural environment. Outdoor play is single most beneficial prescribed prescription (Spencer & Wright, 2014) for children who regularly experience outdoor play since they show significant gains in stronger immune systems, healthy physical and social development. In addition to healthy physical and social development, the outdoors can accommodate higher levels and different kinds of opportunities than indoors (Perry, 2003). Experiences in the natural world help children to understand life cycle and seasons, make predictions and become aware of the interdependence between plants, animals and elements like rain and sun.
A Sense of Belonging
Young children need to feel that they belong to their families, their classrooms, their community, and their environment (Baumgartner & Buchanan, 2010; Morrison, 2015). When teachers provide children with opportunities to be part of their environment, children cooperate and help each other (Harris, 2007). “Unity is an important sense” of belonging to something (Acar & Torquati, 2015, p. 68). This sense of belonging promotes children’s development of their spirits as well as their friendships (Harris, 2007).
When children play outdoors, they have many opportunities to experience how to care for animals and plants and develop empathy for nature and other people (Acar & Torquati, 2015; Chawla, 2012: Session & Lash, 2017; Wokye, 2004). Such experiences with nature foster curiosity and questions about their natural environment (Harris, 2007; Wolf, 2000). “Being outdoors connects children to the community” (Rivkin, 2014, p. 6), and developing children’s sense of belonging helps them to understand that they are important members of the community. When teachers create safe and nurturing classroom environments where students are accepted, valued, and respected, students’ basic psychological needs are met (DeVries & Zan, 2012). Building such an environment is a long process (Alexander, Izumi-Taylor, & Meredith, 2015), and through outdoor play, teachers can enhance students’ sense of belonging. Exploring and experiencing outdoors can related to children’s spiritual development (Wilson, 2012) as well as all domains of development.
Respect for Oneself and Others
Respectful teachers encourage children to be respectful to each other, and they are promoting children’s spirituality (Baumgartner & Buchanan, 2010; Harris, 2007; Koontz, 2002; Wolf, 2000). When teachers truly understand and believe that children are spiritual beings, teachers can nurture children’s development of spirits (Wolf, 2000). Supporting children’s such development enhance children’s creativity (Baumartner & Buchanan, 2010), and their nature play provides children an opportunity to be creative and imaginative (Acar & Torquati, 2015; Chawla, 2012). It also promotes children’s respect for their environments (Wilson, 1993; Wokye, 2004; Wolf, 2000).
Teachers can promote children’s respect for others by thinking their classrooms as a community and by creating a group of people “who come together for a particular task in a spirit of harmony and helpfulness” (Wolf, 2000, p. 36). When teachers respect and honor students, they are more likely to engage in respectful behavior (Morrison, 2015). Children who enjoy democratic classroom environments that created by teachers and them will develop a sense of responsibility for their own behavior. They also understand what is needed to have their own community of learners in the classroom (Morrison, 2015).
Respectful teachers interact with others with dignity (DeVries & Zan, 2012). Such teachers understand that spiritual development of students can be stimulated by having caring and loving relationships and by experiencing natural and real beautiful things in nature (Schein, 2014). These relationships with nature are deeply and internally connected to spirituality.
Awareness and Appreciation of the Unknown
When children engage in outdoor activities, there is a stronger knowledge base and empathetic regard toward environmental issues (Burris & Burris, 2011). Children need to experience and appreciate what the world offers (Baumartner & Buchanan, 2010; Chawla, 2012; Wolf, 2000). They need to see, feel, and hear nature, including trees, soil, the sky, animals, water, snow, and rain. Children need to know and to enjoy nature. Outdoor play experiences promote children’s sense of wonder (Carson, 1956; Chawla, 2012; Woyke, 2004), and children’s sense of wonder comes from their discovery of nature and outdoors.
“The intrinsically of play also grounded in a sense of wonder and awe” (Harris, 2007, p. 271). When teachers model their wonderment of outdoors play experiences and natural phenomena, children’s awareness of unknown will be enticed (Baumartner & Buchanan, 2011). Outdoor play can inspire children’s sense of wonder and curiosity about the natural world and can related to environmental education (Torquati et al., 2010). Through outdoor play, children learn and discover meanings of their environments. Children can be themselves through nature when they are playing outdoors (Woyke, 2004).
To enhance children’s awareness and appreciation of the unknown, providing them with ample opportunities to ask questions is critical (Harris, 2007), and their sense of wonder can be promoted when children ask questions, their spirituality is developing (Harris, 2007; Vickers & Mathews, 2002). Teachers can ask some wonder questions to enhance their sense of appreciation, such as “ How did little bird know how to build it?” (Wolf, 2000, p. 35).
Suggested Outdoor Play Activities
The following outdoor activities were implemented in preschools, and some children’s comments as well as teachers’ suggestions regarding each activity are included.
Tops and bottle caps
Provide children with ample tops and bottle caps. At one school one child found a bottle cap outside and started spinning it (Izumi Taylor, 2004). Then, this child asked the teacher if he could bring more bottle caps to school. With the teacher’s permission, the children, aged four, were excited to bring their own bottle caps and tops to school the next day. Many children started spinning their own tops and bottles caps outdoors. One child cried, “My red cap spins for a long time!” Another child asked the teacher, “Why is mine not spinning?” After many conversations about tops and bottle caps, the teacher created a chart, and the children drew pictures of the various caps and compared and contrasted them. On this chart, the children and teacher specified which caps spun fast and which ones did not. Also, they categorized what types of caps can spin faster and which ones can not.
Some children said, “Mine spins faster because it is red, “ “Mine is slow but can spin for a long time.” The teacher commented, “I just followed the students’ interests and expanded them. I observe them closely so I know what they like and what they want to explore. It would be better to provide children with a flat surface where they can spin caps easily since they enjoy playing this outdoors.”
Using bubbles outdoors can be a fun learning experience (Bundy & Levine, 2018). At one childcare center, children aged four and five enjoyed painting with bubbles outdoors, preparing a bubble solution following the recipe described by Bundy and Levine (2018): Mix 6 cups of water, 1 cup of dishwashing liquid, and 1/4 cup corn syrup or 1 table spoon glycerin, but do not form bubbles while mixing. This schools’ children were provided with plastic cups and straws. Based on children’s preferences of colors, teachers created four differently colored bubble solutions, and the children blew bubbles on a large sheet of paper. At the beginning of this activity, teachers told the children to blow out the bubbles but not to swallow them. Children blew through straws into cups of mixture in order for them to see it spatter onto the paper. The children and teachers dried their work outdoors and brought them into the classroom after drying.
Some children commented: “It looks easy to blow out but it is not! I had to take a big breath in before blowing it!” “You need to blow soft if you want small bubbles to come out,” and “If you mix red bubbles and yellow ones, you get orange!” The teacher suggested, “The students really enjoy this activity, but we have to make sure that they blow it out and not drink it. Some children asked me to take photos of them blowing it out so the photos can remind them not to swallow or drink it. I thought this was a good idea, and we have them in our classroom as our reminder.”
Students are able to play splash in mud puddles that are a combination water and ground dirt/mud dressed in their pool attire. This activity allows the students to not only enjoy mud play but to explore the smell, touch and feel of the mud against their skill.
Children’s comments included: “This is fun! Look at me, I’m in the mud!” “I love playing with mud and being dirty!”
Lunch & Tent talk in the garden:
Lunch & Tent Talk in the Garden-Students enjoy lunch in the classroom garden and discuss with their lunch partner the image that appears on their table tent card.
Kite Flying-Students enjoy flying kites on the playground with classmates
Student Reaction to Kite Flying-“Wow, its high in the sky. ”
Student Reaction to Kite Flying-“Mines is flying with the birds”