When we're out in the natural world, we have much more of a sense of being physical and much more of a sense of being free. If children don't have this experience of openness, of feeling their bodies move up and down hills and against the wind when they're learning what physicality is about, it seems there have to be consequences. What happens to young children if they are constricted in imagination or physicality? Will they bloom later on? Or do they just assume that their piece of the world is always constricted and become comfortable with it, as do animals in a zoo? To develop a sense of yourself as a human being, you need to be outside, feeling like you can run as far as you possibly can or gallop for what seems like forever to oversee the world from the top of a hill.
There is a difference between the authentic experience and the managed one, and a dilemma arises when we try to provide nature to children in relatively mannered ways. Consider the experience of the mall. There are trees but no falling leaves or dirt, and never any smells of nature or ways to interact with it. It's the same situation with indoor parks. And when we create playgrounds for children, we often design an outdoor version of this managed experience. We take such care, for example, to make sure the landscape has very little natural impact on children. We don't want grass or plots of land that may hide bugs, or trees with leaves or fruits that may get a little messy. We don't want anything unexpected. So, children don't have an authentic experience. I believe that if we raise children without a sense of being part of a natural system, there will be negative consequences to their potential as human beings and to the resources of the world.
As important adults in children's lives, we need to be open to the natural world and the wonder of it, with our own sense of wonder and appreciation. Being open to experiencing rain on our faces or to why children want to put their noses on the condensation on the window will have a positive impact.
We also have to be more thoughtful about what causes us to restrict children's experiences. This involves thinking about the difference between a mess, an unhealthy mess, and an unsanitary mess (like food on the floor). Dirt is messy, but it isn't unhealthy. Children's digging around and messing around with worms is messy, and it also may not be aesthetic, but it isn't nasty or unsanitary.
We need to problem-solve - ask the question: "If exposing children to life is important to their growth, what can we do?" We can grow a plant indoors and out, have gerbils, birds, or fish. Instead of coming up with all the reasons things like these can't be done, we can be persistent. If this is important, we'll find a way. If all we can do is grow beans in class, that's better than not growing beans at all.
To get more natural experiences into children's programs, we also need to consciously connect those experiences with a sense of scientific inquiry. Making toast with a four-year-old is not just a neat activity that involves doing something for others, it's also a chemistry experiment; and the water table is a scientific place where children do chemistry, physics, and math.
It's sad but true that children who have only organized experiences in nature will probably need permission to mess around and a little help in being free. Many expect a playground to be only three pieces of equipment - a swing, slide, and climber. If we don't view outdoor play space as natural and open, we won't give children permission to explore what the world is about. If we can't lie on our backs and look at the patterns of the clouds or the sunlight through the trees, then the children aren't likely to either. Our role modeling is to be open to the natural world, to watch and see if birds come to the bird feeder, appreciate a child busy digging for worms, notice the dandelions pushing up between the cracks in the sidewalk, and delight in children measuring the rainfall or how long their wet footprints stay visible. Teaching is being sensitive and making a conscious decision that our programs are going to be laboratories for messy young scientists, indoors and out.