Put your hands in your pockets. Bite your tongue. Just let it happen. This is what Elisabeth Peschek-Tomasi, an educator specialised in nature, advises all parents. And what she means is: If children jump enthusiastically into the mud, dig passionately in the earth and slide down the hill on their bottoms, then it’s a good thing. “Obviously, not much happens for us, except that our trousers get dirty. But for the child, a lot happens, they make important experiences and discoveries, train their body awareness, sense of balance, fine motor skills,” she emphasises.
“Nature is much more than a playground, it is a space for development. Children can act in a self-determined and self-effective way, practise and consolidate skills. Playing alone or together with others is often easier in nature than in pre-set settings. This is because it has qualities that enclosed spaces cannot offer to the same extent,” says the expert. Nature also provides stimuli that are appropriate for children without being too demanding – for example, gradations from warm to cold, from damp to dry.
Reward for the brain
Becoming aware of oneself through one’s senses is the first step towards self-awareness, Peschek-Tomasi refers to brain researcher Gerald Hüther. “In nature, a lot can be discovered and created in very different ways. In the home or on a playground, everything is already ready. An overgrown garden or a forest, on the other hand, is never finished because it is constantly changing, because it is alive. Watercourses can be dammed up with stones, campfires and huts can be built from branches, and small figures can be constructed with bark, moss, and leaves. Children develop an incredible imagination. Every form of creativity, every good idea causes the reward centre in the brain to release special messenger substances that trigger a good feeling. This has a motivating effect. And at the same time, the nerve cells are stimulated to network more strongly with each other. In this way, learning works all by itself, with a lot of joy,” Hüther said in a Geo interview.
But despite the importance and necessity of such experiences, Peschek-Tomasi advises: don’t put pressure on yourself. Ballet lessons, flute lessons, football training, English camp – many children already have a full schedule. So “experiencing nature” should not be added as an additional compulsory item. Instead, relaxation is the order of the day. You don’t have to make an event out of an outdoor experience,” explains the expert. You don’t have to present your children with a big adventure, a suitcase of materials or a plan of action. Everything is already there, in nature. “It’s about children simply getting into action. How do I start something and how do I finish it? These are also important everyday skills that you can learn in nature in a wonderfully playful way,” says the ecology graduate. The parents set the example for how to respectfully treat nature.
How important is the nature’s playground, especially for children growing up in an urban environment? Here, too, the nature educator takes the pressure off, because adventure is sometimes waiting around the next street corner. “You can also find nature on a small scale – in a rain puddle, for example. You can turn it into a fun experience and simply swap your white sneakers for rubber boots beforehand.”
What makes the forests and meadows so good for you lies in the balance of the interplay between the familiar and the new. The familiar gives us security – trees, bushes, flowers are familiar to us, while surprises await – a rabbit in the bushes, a ladybird on a blade of grass, a tadpole in the pond. This unexpected and unforeseen stimulates curiosity. So: Let’s go!
Original German translated to English by Familux.