Playing and Learning: Our Second Nature

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE. Looking at the photo below, that my cousin sent me recently, I found myself thinking about the past and my early outdoor play and learning experiences. I remember as a very young child having great times playing outside without structure and without supervision – making mud pies, playing in the creek, and coming home messy and muddy from head to toe. This was a standout experience of my childhood along with family camping trips with aunts, uncles and cousins, where we foraged in the forest for berries and played with sticks and stones. I was never the girl comfortable in the frilly dress with ribbons in her hair. I was the one with messy hair and uneven bangs, and skinned knees and dirty clothes that was always mucking and messing about. I felt I belonged outdoors.

Only a few days after my cousin kindly shared this photo with me, an article appeared on my Facebook newsfeed that spoke to what I remembered. “Unstructured childhood play in natural settings—what many of us happily remember as mucking around in the woods—is so much more than just play.” I was drawn to these words. Like the author of Alone in the Woods, I too can “wax nostalgic about all the forts and tree houses of my childhood” and I also know that “stimulating outdoor environments supports the entire spectrum of children’s developmental domains: physical, social, emotional, intellectual, creative, and spiritual”. What children need is intimate, unscripted time to experience the joys of mucking about, not just in the woods, but also at the creek, under the tree, or in the puddle. Decades after this photo was taken I rediscovered that this is my second nature. The place that supported this discovery is called Swan Lake.


Swan Lake is where the York Region Nature Collaborative holds meetings and delivers professional learning workshops. Through a meandering path in the woods, it is in walking distance from my new house. When I was first invited by the Toronto and Region Conservation Authority to be involved with this non-profit organization whose mission is to empower the early learning communities of York Region and beyond to engage meaningfully with nature on a daily basis I felt like the child I once was. Once again, I felt the joy of playing outside, in all seasons, while becoming happily aware of the flora, the fauna, the birds, the frogs, the earth, mud, bark, sticks and stones around me. Now I have this feeling that I belong to this place. Giving children the opportunity to make a connection to place is so important and when in that place, to give them an open invitation to explore and discover without a script, task, or job, because just to play is in their nature and playing in nature, is their second nature. When I look at that little girl in the photo, I am reminded of my past and the outdoor places of my childhood that brought me joy. So it is with a serendipitous enthusiasm that I look forward to attending the York Region Nature Collaborative’s annual conference at Black Creek Pioneer Village, the Play and Nature Summit.

Register NowI visited the village often as a young girl. It encouraged my love for history. With the backdrop of this historic village, I am excited to hear the keynote speaker, Dr. David Elkind, a renowned author and proponent of both play and history. I am grateful that his name came to mind when the conference was in the planning stages, as he seems the perfect fit. Just like the Power of Play: Learning what Comes Naturally was my go to book a few years ago, when I was teaching a course on play in early childhood education, Giants in the Nursery: A Biographical History of Developmentally Appropriate Practice is my go to book now, as I am teaching a course on history and philosophy of early childhood education. I am very excited about this conference on May 13, 2016! We will be beginning with an opportunity to explore the village during the pre-conference session, focusing on the Village’s current early childhood education program based on the book, Charlie Needs a New Cloak. After exploring sheep shearing, washing, carding and spinning wool as well as weaving and sewing wool into cloth, we will then have an opportunity to gather as a group of early years professionals to evaluate the program and work together to update and redesign the perfect early years heritage based program! Included in our discussions will be ways to bring history to life in our own classrooms/contexts. Soon after, there will be a dinner where Dr. Elkind, will speak to the giants in early childhood education on whose shoulders we stand. The next day, Dr. Elkind will speak to play and nature, with a variety of workshops to follow including one that I am co-facilitating on The Historical and Play Significance of Buttons as Loose Parts. There is also a Sunday offering on risky play, facilitated by Marlene Power of Forest School Canada but this is already sold out! Don’t miss out on the other offerings register now!  Join other early learning professionals committed to helping children maintain a full sense of wonder and excitement into adulthood!

A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood ~ Rachel Carson

It may be children’s second nature to play outside in nature or for that matter to play anywhere in a way that is unscripted and unstructured, but they don’t always have the opportunities as their time outside and their time to play, may be limited by the adults in the their lives. When I was a practicing early childhood educator, I would take children outdoors to play in a fenced in playground within a large green space with trees, grass, rocks, sticks, mud, hills and earth. I never ventured beyond the playground. I thought the children needed the structures in the playground in order to play. That was the scope of my understanding of what constitutes outdoor play and learning. However, since my first visit to Swan Lake when I was asked to consider the possibilities of this place to support early environmental education, I have realized that there is so much to learn and so many possibilities for children when invited to play outside in, and with nature. I look forward to learning at Play and Nature Summit with Dr. Elkind and so many others. Until then, I continue to reflect on the past, present, and future of play and nature. In childhoods of the past, where outdoor play was plentiful, children learned to handle their own quarrels, negotiate their turn at games, and have other valuable learning experiences. We must keep this tradition alive. As David Elkind has said, “one of the consequences of childhood moving indoors is the culture of childhood, passed down for hundreds of years is lost”. Join us at the Play and Nature Summit, to do your part to make sure that the culture of childhood remains grounded in both play and nature.


2 thoughts on “Playing and Learning: Our Second Nature

  1. ….. because just to play is in their nature and playing in nature is their second nature. Diane playing with words again. One might argue it’s first.


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