Powerful Play

Secrets to Nurturing Your Child’s Potential with Nature

Three great reasons to play outside with your youngsters this summer.

Chasing butterflies through meadows and watching birds soar. Spotting salamander eggs and spying on fascinating pond life. Digging in the dirt, peeking under logs, and scoping out fox dens.  

With beautiful Woodend Nature Sanctuary as their living classroom, young children enjoy these adventures and more during a normal day of learning at our Nature Preschool in Chevy Chase, Md. There are important reasons for encouraging this kind of nature play. 

The powerful benefit of playing in mud puddles is no longer a dirty little secret. Over the last three decades, a growing body of research has established that outdoor experiences help boost your child’s cognitive and behavioral development and physical and mental health. More time outdoors, especially in early childhood, helps set the stage for a lifetime of happiness, creativity, resilience, physical strength… and environmental responsibility. Let me share with you three great reasons to play outside with your little ones this summer. I can also offer you some tips to make it easy! 

Preschool children playing in a pile of fall leaves
Build a Healthy Body

Opportunities for consistent, direct contact with natural objects and places can do wonders for your child. Angela Hanscom’s 2016 book, Balanced and Barefoot, explains the science behind why children who frequently enjoy prolonged periods of free play outdoors develop superior gross and fine motor skills, core strength, stability, flexibility, endurance, vision, and attention spans. Exposure to sunlight and vitamin D also strengthens your child’s immune system as well as his or her bones, muscles and nerve functions. If you are new to spending time outdoors, you could start with 15-minute walks through your neighborhood. Over time, you and your child can work up to weekly hikes through your favorite park. During these walks, try helping your child balance on a fallen log and pull themselves up onto tree branches. When you have more time, you could find a place to build a fort from sticks. You’ll be working with nature to nurture your child’s physical well-being. 

Inspire Happiness

Did you know that contact with nature is associated with better mental health? It’s true! Time spent near running water can lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. Listening to birdsong has been found to reduce feelings of anxiety and depression. Exposure to greenspaces increases creativity and the capacity for problem-solving. It also promotes better quality sleep. Experts recommend experiencing 120 minutes of weekly nature exposure to support a wide range of mental and emotional benefits. Get your weekly dose of “Vitamin N” in any way that is convenient for you! Invite your little one to dig in the garden, spend some time cloud-watching, or wade in a creek. Check out Richard Louv’s The Essential Guide to a Nature-Rich Life: 500 Ways to Enrich the Health & Happiness of Your Family & Community for more great ideas. 

Nurture a Nature Champion

Deep engagement with the natural world at a young age is a great recipe for inspiring passionate environmentalists. Children use direct sensory experiences to develop the way they perceive the world. Using those senses during nature play cultivates a sense of wonder and connection to natural places. So, in those moments when your child delights in making mud pies or throwing rocks into a creek, you can be sure that you are sowing the seeds of their transformation into a person who will work for a healthier planet for all of us. Collaborative nature activities like working with others to build a campsite or going birding with a group also teach teamwork, cooperation, negotiation and conflict resolution, which are essential skills for tackling modern ecological problems. Find more ideas for nurturing your young environmentalist in the book Learning with Nature: A how-to guide to inspiring children through outdoor games and activities by Marina Robb, Victoria Mew and Anna Richardson. 

At Nature Forward, we are committed to the idea that we all need nature and nature needs all of us. Over the course of our more than 125 years of connecting people with nature, we have learned that it is never too early to engage with the natural world. Since its founding in 2006, our Nature Preschool has been an innovative place where girls and boys begin their educational journey immersed in the natural world at Woodend Nature Sanctuary in Chevy Chase. While our young naturalists gain the social, emotional, and early literacy skills that equip them for success in kindergarten, they also reap other benefits for themselves and for the planet.  

Our Nature Preschool students use all their senses to explore the ever-changing seasons in our woodlands, meadows and ponds. They hike, picnic, jump in puddles, make campfires, munch on wild edibles and spend quiet moments gazing into the treetops or on the forest floor, observing the natural world from their unique, close-to-the-Earth perspective. Our preschool programs offer children anywhere from one to five hours a day of nature connection under the gentle guidance of expert educators, or with a parent or caregiver by their side. Each program spans three seasons, across nine months. You can learn more or schedule a tour here. 

For older children and teens, Camp Woodend provides opportunities for outdoor learning and adventure for youth from K through 9. All camps are taught by experienced environmental educators, maintaining a child-teacher ratio of 8-1. You can see our full 2024 Camp Catalog here.

Whether you visit us at Woodend for a few hours, participate in a summer camp experience, or join us for a full school year of outdoor preschool adventure, we can’t wait to see you outside!