Our sensory systems are the filters through which we understand our world. As children, it is the ‘language’ we use to speak with our environment.
Something interesting happens when a child enters an environment, whether it's a park playground, an outdoor classroom, a streetscape, or even their own bedroom.
A child initiates an unspoken conversation with their environment, and it goes something like this...
A child asks <hey, environment> “what can you offer me?” “What can I experience here?” “How can I play and spark my imagination?” “How will I know I’m safe?” “What can I learn from you?” “How may I grow here?”
And, the internal questioning continues...
The environment responds to the child, always. It responds to them in a language they can easily understand: through their senses. The natural environment is rich in color, shape, texture, fragrance, sensation, taste, movement, and on and on. The conversation begins as the child starts playing, and the dialogue becomes more rich and deep as they explore, discover, and develop a relationship with the space.
This loving, nurturing silent conversation happens between nature and children of any ages, even infants. This beautiful dialogue takes place between nature and children who are non-verbal. Nature is always speaking to us. We have to still ourselves to listen.
And, we must allow our children time and place to still themselves as often as possible because, for them, these conversations quickly develop into a relationship with nature that lasts their entire lives. A relationship that anchors them, especially when their lives can get turbulent.
This is one of the many reasons I advocate for nature play.
Nature play is one of the best tools we have to give our children what they need to develop into the amazing humans they're meant to be.
Thanks so much for being here with me! Whether you’re new to the nature play scene or a seasoned expert, I’m certain you’re going to find here a fresh perspective and heart-felt information on this very important thing we call nature play.
Let me introduce myself, I’m Jena. I’m a landscape architect with 20+ years’ experience designing nature-based play, learning, and therapeutic landscapes for kiddos of all abilities and diversities.
Now, I teach parents, educators, therapeutic professionals, and others how to create sensory-rich play spaces at home or wherever their kids are. I do this because I believe the power should also be in your hands to create loving, engaging, natural play/learning/therapeutic spaces where your kids will blossom.
My approach to my work centers on creating environments that engage children’s 7 sensory systems: sight, touch, taste, smell, sound, vestibular, and proprioception.
Why is this important, you ask? It is not just important, I say, but essential. I’m going to share the 3 biggest reasons why I have an unshakeable belief in the value of sensory-rich nature play:
Essential reason #1...
Our children are as beautiful and diverse in their being, individuality, learning, cognition, and physicality, as the flowers in a well-tended garden. And, that’s how it should be.
When we garden, we recognize that each individual plant has its own set of care needs and conditions in which it thrives. It’s the same with our children. Each child has his or her own set of care needs and conditions so they may grow into the fullest, happiest, most centered versions of themselves possible.
A child develops, learns, plays, and thrives when their sensory systems are given rich, diverse, high-quality sensory information.
The goal of a sensory-rich nature play area is to provide a diverse range and depth of sensory experiences where a child can seek out the type and intensity of sensory input that feels best to them at the time. The ability for kids to choose their experiences is ESSENTIAL, as I said before, because what one child needs to thrive can be very different from another’s (and that’s perfect).
These spaces are inclusive by providing equitable play and learning experiences. For example, there’s more than one way to learn one’s alphabet: pencil and paper, drawing with a stick or their finger in the sand, creating letters out of bits of natural materials…and it’s not always done sitting down. Kids, if they’re inspired, can move their bodies, lay on their bellies, or whatever position feels best for them. Sayonara, tiny uncomfortable school chair.
With diversity of natural features and activities, all kids will find valuable experiences for their bodies, minds, and spirits.
Nature play areas are also inclusive because nature doesn’t judge. Nature will meet any child right where they are physically, cognitively, emotionally, and socially. Nature is the most loving, supportive, and sometimes challenging (in a good way) companion for kids of all abilities and diversities.
Essential reason #2 is...
The healing benefits of nature has been well-researched over decades. I’m glad for the scientific ‘proof’. But, I’ve even more glad that we have the ability to look into our hearts to understand nature’s healing power with even more clarity and truth. For all ages, natural environments boost our happiness and joy, our immune systems, our self-confidence, and so much more. Kids, specifically, benefit from nature’s ability to help them with sensory balance, lessening the symptoms of many conditions like autism, sensory-processing disorders, and ADHD (yes, there are lots of studies on this).
Children’s landscapes, like nature play areas, learning environments, and sensory gardens aren’t just healing for the kids; these spaces are healing for us all. I speak to this on a global stage on a professional level and I also have personal experience.
In 2012 I dealt with cancer and multiple emergency surgeries that almost ended me. It took a long time for my body and mind to come back to some degree of ‘health’. In 2015, I gave birth to an amazing set of twins, whom I love more than life itself. After 2 1/2 years of minimal sleep (I’m talking an average of 3 hours a night) I’m back to being a ragged zombie with no time or energy to attend to my own physical or mental health. What mom can’t relate, right?
In 2018, I decided to build a children’s sensory garden at our home. Over the past few years, the garden has grown and evolved into a magical space that we all enjoy beyond measure. I built it with my own two hands, with much supervision and guidance from my girls. Our garden has, for me, offered daily opportunities for physical healing, mental clarity, emotional support, and a feeling of wholeness and connection.
My point, dear moms and dads, is that if you build a nature play space at home, it will benefit, holistically, the health of your children, you…your entire family.
And, the third essential reason is…
If you ask me, a primary purpose of childhood is discovering all the experiences that bring us joy.
In joy, there’s innocence.
In joy, there’s connection.
In joy, we figure out who we really are.
In joy, we are all in our native state.
Children naturally seek that state of joy in every moment of their waking lives. They embody that innocent, vibrant energy. They relish the feelings of connectedness. They intuitively understand that this state of being is closer to their authentic selves.
We seem to lose this ability as we go into later school years and as we become adults. Then, we spend our adult lives being productive, and efficient, and pushing ourselves harder and harder. I, myself, have always been a hard worker and have spent many years in the mindset that the harder I work, the faster I’ll get to where I want to be. But, in the process, I lost much of the joy in life that makes each day magical. AND, where I wanted to be always seemed to shift around, a constantly moving target. Even now, I look around and see most of my family, friends, and colleagues clinging tight to that same belief. I have to ask, ‘Where is that really getting us?’
I truly believe that children are our teachers, and we can find no better. They remind us what’s really important. They encourage us to break out of our ‘programming’ and look at the world with fresh eyes. They give us permission to do things differently than how everyone else does it. They want us, need us, to unabashedly be our unique selves. That way, they have the freedom to do the same.
Children remind us to find the joy in all the small moments. That’s the only place joy truly exists, and they know it.