In today’s world, children are very restricted. There is no such thing as ‘free’ play anymore. Children are no longer allowed to play on pavements, streets, alleys and vacant plots. It is no longer safe for children to wander off alone. Many children are no longer allowed to roam their neighbourhoods unless accompanied by adults.
Moreover, some working parents cannot supervise their children after school and, as a result, children have to stay indoors or attend supervised after-school activities. Children’s lives have become structured and scheduled by adults who think they are acting in their children’s best interest. These adults are convinced that sending their children to private lessons after school will make them more successful as adults.
Unfortunately, even schoolyards are not designed to promote a natural playing environment for children. The surplus energy theory, developed by 19th-century psychologist Herbert Spencer, may have contributed to this. According to this theory, the main purpose for children’s play is to get rid of surplus energy. Although the theory was rejected by researchers and developmental theorists, it still influenced the design of children’s outdoor school environments.
As a result of Spencer’s theory, schoolyards are seen as areas for physical play during breaks and sporting activities, where children ‘burn off steam’, and not as a means of providing rich educational opportunities, particularly in the area of social skills and environmental learning.
Human nature itself has also contributed to this design paradigm. Our common experiences usually shape what we conceive as conventional and, therefore, the norm by which we operate.
When most adults were children, schoolyards consisted of asphalted areas with fixed playground equipment such as swings and slides, and sports fields, and used solely during breaks. So most adults see this as the appropriate model for a schoolyard.
Research shows that young children who have not yet adapted to the man-made world consistently prefer the natural landscape to built environments. Moreover, studies have revealed various benefits of regular play in nature.
Children that are in contact with nature:
• Score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline;
• Show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often;
• Are more imaginative and creative;
• Are less stressed;
• Are not generally engaged in bullying;
• Develop powers of observation and creativity and a sense of peace and being at one with the world;
• Are more imaginative and curious;
• Have more positive feelings about each other;
• Are more socially interactive;
• Develop an affinity to, and love of nature, along with a positive environmental ethic.
According to Harvard biologist Edward Wilson, the need to affiliate with other species is built into our genes.
He believes that the need to connect with nature is a reflection of our evolutionary roots. However, in our busy urban lives we increasingly work against our biophilic needs by instilling a biophobia. This describes the condition whereby one develops an adverse reaction to nature and only feels comfortable in a man-made environment.
Children who are constantly removed from nature may develop this condition and may also refuse contact with nature and dislike or fear plants and animals. In contrast to the conventional schools, contact with nature is central to the educational curriculum in alternative schools whereby in the pre-school, kindergarten and primary years, children are encouraged to directly experience nature.
Children play outside, preferably in gardens that mirror the changing seasons through the changing plant life. The classroom furnishings as well as all toys are made from natural materials such as wood, stone, pottery, wool, cotton, silk and linen. The emphasis is on working with the materials of nature through planting and harvesting, craft work and creative play. The commonly used dolls are also made of natural materials and have simple expressions and allow natural postures. The first years are thus years of nature experience.