Small Children Learn Naturally Through Outdoor Play

Changes happening at the national level in the United States are creating a previously unforeseen expression of ideas and opinions. It seems like a perfect moment to begin to explain the basic, time-honored principles behind nature education and what Marin GreenPlay strives to achieve with its programs.

Children are not little adults. Like all other young creatures in the animal world, they are born with a genetic code made up of adaptations to the world in which they have been born. For the vast majority of human existence, this world consisted of interacting with nature and all of the other non-human creatures existing within it. And so children are born connected with nature, what the preeminent scientist and scholar E.O. Wilson calls "biophilia". Only later, due to the influences of modern society (the economy, technology, social norms, etc.), do they tend to differentiate themselves from the rest of nature.

When we intentionally bring adult-centered societal influences to our children in babyhood, toddlerdom, or later, the child's development is indisputably affected. Play, on the other hand, is a universal part of the development of all creatures (and when discontinued as adults, brings imbalance). It is understood that through play, non-human animals "try out" many behaviors and learn in a cause and effect fashion, what behaviors are workable and which are not.

For example, on a visit to Katmai National Park, where coastal brown bears (larger than grizzly bears) live and roam free with human visitors, we learned that the most feared bears were the juvenile ones because they are the most unpredictable. A mother bear with her very young cubs, on the other hand, would predictably avoid humans to prevent harm to the cubs. The juvenile bears, weaned and struggling to learn to survive in their surroundings, would sometimes approach humans too closely and engage in behaviors that were not necessarily beneficial for them. Often they were engaged in what (if we weren't so afraid to be near) was thrillingly similar to human play.

While it seems more efficient to teach children everything they need to know directly, saving them the bumps, bruises, disappointment and more that comes with learning what works and what doesn't through play, children are not equipped to learn in the abstract. They aren't ready to take what we say as fact. They need to experience it for themselves, primarily through play. Like the juvenile bears, human children need this play to figure out for themselves what is and isn't acceptable to others, what makes them happy and sad, how things work, etc., in short, what and how makes life livable in community with others, including non-human creatures and other organisms.

For our smallest campers in Grades K-2, we employ what is essentially the forest kindergarten model in our camps. This means that our activities are interest-led, inquiry-based, with an emphasis on social and emotional development. We bring place-based themes and knowledge of the place, that when combined with play, results in teaching kids how to problem solve and work cooperatively with camp friends, encouraging excitement about learning, and promoting a willingness to take risks and persevere, among other very important lessons.

While some parents may shy away from this model and enroll their children in what they view to be more "academic" or "concrete" programs like learning a sport, a musical instrument, how to code on a computer or how to build the beginnings of a circuit, this decision largely misunderstands that at this age, play and not adult-centered pursuits are the academics of young childhood. We hope that those who make this choice will do so with as much traditional unorganized, child-directed outdoor play mixed in as is possible.  

Marin GreenPlay Camp provides developmentally-appropriate experiences for kids at every stage. We can't wait to watch your children be radically amazed by the beautiful place called the Earth that we all share.

As always, we'd love your feedback.  See you on the trail!