Learning from the Past While Moving Forward on our Journeys: Thoughts on Play and Nature

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. The concept of play-based learning is not new and the idea of playing in and with nature while getting a lot of attention these days is not a current fad or trend. It has been long suggested that play is the vehicle for learning and there is no better classroom than the outdoors.Macmillian quote

Margaret McMillian (1860-1931) and her sister Rachel McMillian (1859-1917) started an open-air nursery school in 1911. The program was play-oriented and was born out of the sisters’ concern for the health problems they were seeing in poor communities. Playing outdoors to learn is not a new concept. Playing outdoors in nature as a means to support healthy development has a long tradition in early learning. Play and nature, like interests and inquiry are current “buzzwords” amongst early learning professionals but we are doing a disservice to these ideas by considering them as currently fashionable. Rather we can think about play and playing in nature as a resurrection of long held beliefs that are ready now to become more than a trend but a movement. A buzzword is a word or phrase, often an item of jargon that has become fashionable in a particular time or context often associated with a particular profession. While it seems like play and nature are new ideas, great thinkers have been supporting and advocating for children to learn through play outdoors for centuries. It is a shame that these words could be considered jargon. Jargon involves words and phrases that are used by a particular group that are often difficult for others to understand. I would contend that even within our own profession jargon is difficult to comprehend. Part of the difficulty is that the words that we are so often hearing lately; “Reggio”, “inquiry”, “interests”, “play”, “nature” are dismissed as “a flash in the pan”; something that is fashionable for only a short time. Yet, these terms have historical significance spanning generations. Rather than dismissing, reflecting on buzzwords and jargon can give us a starting point for dialogue and discourse. Thinking about what these words meant to others and relating that to what they mean to our practice provides an opportunity to think deeply. Thinking deeply about practice supports effective practice. It situates the professional within a cycle of professional practice.

The Cycle of Professional Practice

To be effective in what they do, early learning professionals are continuously focussed on learning, improvement, and growth – their practice is cyclical in nature. As an early an early learning professional, you, like your profession, are in process. Rather than remain static or stagnant, you will continuously evolve as you respond to the context in which you practise (Dietze & Kashin, 2015, p. 7). I love seeing tweets on Twitter and posts on Facebook from early learning professionals striving for continuous improvement in their practice. I hope my new textbook with Beverlie Dietze will support early learning students to engage in reflective practice as they begin their journeys as professionals. Looking back can help us move forward on our journeys. Thinking about our own past as well as the history of our profession will support reflective, effective practice.

“Only by building on the past, and understanding the past, can we come to understand the practices of the present and seek better ways of working with young children” (Spodek & Saracho, 2003, p. 3).

Rather than disregard these ideas, looking at their origin will help us realize that in reality play-based and nature-based learning are not transient occurrences. They are long-standing traditions in our profession. They are ideas espoused by great thinkers like Patti Smith Hill.

Patty Smith Hill

Patty Smith Hill was a teacher and composer perhaps best known for composing with her sister, the happy birthday song. She is also recognized as an early advocate of quality. In the 1920s, concerned with the varying quality of emerging nursery school programs in the United States lead Hill to gather prominent figures in the field to issue a manual, called “Minimum Essentials for Nursery Education” which set out standards and three years later the group created a professional association, the National Association for Nursery Education (NANE) which later changed its name to NAEYC in 1964. Patty Smith Hill was also a proponent of block play and she like Caroline Pratt another progressive educator who supported play are credited with inventing the blocks that we use today in our practices.

Caroline Pratt

On reading more about Pratt I am fascinated to learn that she disagreed with Froebel’s kindergarten especially the quiet morning circles. I have longed had difficulty with the misuse of circle time. I also admire Pratt for she was uncertain about the concept of “universal truth” and I am reminded of an upcoming class that I will be teaching on the reconceptualization movement in early childhood education which asks us to challenge universal truths and my admiration for Pratt deepens.Considering origins is honouring the past and learning for the future. My next blog post will reflect on the origins of emergent curriculum and I hope to encourage my History and Philosophy students at Ryerson University to take on the challenge of blogging and come up with their own reflections of “current” ideas in relationship to the great thinkers of the past.

12 thoughts on “Learning from the Past While Moving Forward on our Journeys: Thoughts on Play and Nature

  1. Thank-you for this wonderful blog Diane. It’s a great way to end the week reflecting on our work through your blog. You provide a wonderful space to do so! I especially enjoy your references to the historical context of our work.
    Happy Saturday. Paola


  2. I found this quotation recently.

    “Must we always teach our children with books? Let them look at the mountains and the stars up above. Let them look at the beauty of the waters and the trees and flowers on earth. They will then begin to think, and to think is the beginning of a real education”.
    – David Polis


  3. Great read, and again much to think about. I really enjoyed reading the historical grounding. I feel too that it honors those who have come before but also helps us to scaffold what we see with children today. Thanks for more to reflect on!


  4. Thanks Brenda! I too enjoy the historical perspective and I am looking forward to writing my next post on the history behind “emergent curriculum”! I really appreciate that you have taken the time to send your feedback – it made my day!


  5. Reblogged this on ECE is Vital and commented:
    It is interesting that when a concept falls out of practice, it is treated as nonexistent for a time. Then when someone is looking for a new classroom strategy, a previously abandoned concept is resurrected as if it is a brand new concept.

    We are a cyclical society rotating from one pattern to the next until a point when the pattern starts over again. We see this is with fashion styles. What was once in style,will eventually lose it swager. Wait long enough, that fashion statement will once again become the go-to style. Education is no different.

    The point here is that the human race consists of individuals who live life though rotating patterns. When we think that a different strategy or program should be implemented, we tend to forget the ones that work perfectly well but may lack a “buzz” quality .


  6. Thanks Michael! Your comment about a cyclical society reminds me of a pendulum – swinging back and forth. I am hoping we have swung back into a direction that supports play and learning especially in nature.


  7. Pingback: Emergent Curriculum, Reggio, and Inquiry: Coming to Terms with Terms | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  8. Pingback: Building Professional Vision: What does Child-Led Really Mean? | Technology Rich Inquiry Based Research

  9. Pingback: Norfolk’s Baby Friendly Settings Project – Norfolk Early Years Garden

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