A reflection on the power of imaginative play in diverse natural learning environments.
Imagination, curiosity, wonder, joy… all of this is present in the everyday moments of free play within the nature wonderland that is the small bush garden and play area at my IB PYP school in Canberra, Australia. After two years living and working at an international school in the harsh desert of Doha, Qatar, I am more aware than ever of the vital importance of nature for children’s learning and development.
Having recently travelled from a dry and arid environment (where the outside play area is unusable for half of the year due to unbearable over 40 degree heat) the tall gum trees, native cockatoos, and rich plants of this different school environment draw me to appreciate their incredible beauty. And they draw the students too.
I am quite amazed at the children’s imaginative play in this vastly different setting. While students in Qatar, who were from 70 different countries, certainly played imaginatively and used what resources were available to develop intriguing games, students in this natural imagination wonderland are spoilt for choice. In the sandpit students are brewing potions, with leaves and twigs they are building tunnels and fortresses, using spring flowers they are creating perfumes, by the grass and creek they are searching for precious gemstones, on the hill they are delivering performances, on the swings they are flying up high into the leaves and branches. By the paperbark trees kids are investigating, pondering, exploring, socialising, problem solving, fantasising, playing and being kids.
These reflections prompted me to think of what I have recently read about Danish Forest Kindergartens, where the first year of schooling is spent outdoors exploring and learning within the natural forest. As was previously explored on the Sharing PYP blog by Australian teacher, Samantha Millar, the local Indigenous Australians have always known the importance of nature, and the power of educating on, within and about ‘country’. When exploring Aboriginal education as part of my teacher training it was clear that Indigenous Australians view health, well-being and connection to land as holistic.
As teachers who want to embed well-being into the curriculum, and broaden students’ experiences of the world, what better way is there than to encourage students to actively appreciate and explore the nature around them? With gross motor delays appearing to be on the rise and increasing technology use resulting in more screen time, it is clear that students need more time outdoors learning. This natural imaginative play is enriching, foundational and transformative. Countless articles abound regarding the way young students in this digital age are receiving less and less exercise, and time for unscheduled, student-led imaginative free play. This can be a significant issue when considering children’s mental health and well-being.
There are a number of ways in which my current school utilises the power of nature to enrich students’ learning. Pre-Kindergarten students travel on regular bushwalks nearby the school, utilising the local community by encouraging parents to join the walks. Teachers incorporate natural materials within the four walls of the classroom, and Canberra Grammar Northside also has a thriving vegetable garden, fruit trees, compost and recycling programs.
In Year 1’s Sharing the Planet unit of inquiry, students investigated the way people collaborate to solve environmental problems. As part of this children are discussing how we can care for our environment with references to the authentic and real-life experiences of the students in their natural playground. We reflected on students’ passions, and many had a particular interest in gemstones. After exploring some gemstones as a class, students began using their playtime to search for different rocks in the playground. They used their inquiry skills when banging, rubbing, and investigating these stones, thinking like scientists as they discovered that some are chalky and the powder could be used to make paint. And they investigated s geologists when finding the different features of these multi-coloured gems. Some children realised these were precious and began attempting to take these home. This was a perfect opportunity to begin discussions into finite resources, and how we can share these. We explored causation, and the effects on others and the environment if we abuse or take too many natural resources.
When students are engaged and curious in their own play within the natural environment there is no limit to their inquiries. The PYP is designed as a transdisciplinary and constructivist curriculum framework. Rather than viewing well-being as something separate to the curriculum, it becomes an integral part of the learning experiences we design. Embedding experiences in nature within the curriculum is a powerful way to develop approaches to learning skills and attributes of the learner profile, including social skills, communication, motor development, imaginative thinking, problem solving, innovation and creativity.
And while experiences in the harsh desert of Qatar may appear on the surface to have been miles away from this bush setting, transformative, authentic, explorative play in nature existed there too. When the weather was slightly cooler, students visited the ginormous singing sand dunes and explored how sliding down these created fascinating vibrations and sounds. They visited beaches to help endangered species of turtles during nesting season and clear plastic litter. They took action on the playground when noticing that a family of chicks in a bird nest were struggling in the intense heat and needed water. And it is the same in the desert, the bush, the beach, or the mountains. No matter where in the world, students thrive when exploring the world around them, and when given an opportunity to take action and make an authentic impact.
Andrea Norman first taught the IB PYP to a diverse range of students from 70 different countries at the International School of London, Qatar, where she was also Language Coordinator. She now teaches the PYP at Canberra Grammar School, Australia. She is currently completing a Masters of Arts in Education (International Education) through the University of Bath. She is passionate about nature, play, intercultural understanding, authentic action and broadening children’s perspectives of the world.