5 Outdoor Sensory Play Ideas for Slowing Down with Children
Rediscovering Time Under The Open Sky
If there were a theory of the fantastic as there is for logic, then we would be able to discover the art of invention. (Novalis)
In 1973, the Italian writer and children’s book author Gianni Rodari set this quotation in the introduction to his magnum opus, The Grammar of Fantasy. However, imagination requires no theory, merely time.
Time is the main element children need to discover their personal art of invention. They are driven by their innate intuition, imagination and creativity as they handle, explore and experiment with objects and materials. The joy of learning is also stimulated by imagination and not only through logic.
With a young child’s physical health and well-being in mind, I tried to imagine outdoor spaces where children can slow down, enjoy time, develop their soft skills, and experience psychomotor learning. These prepared environments nurture the child’s self-guided exploration of sensory perception, motion, creativity and imagination, in nature & daylight.
Each prepared environment can be set up and equipped by the parents or teachers themselves, or together with the children. Any outdoor space can be used: gardens, backyards, terraces or the areas surrounding day care facilities. I have designed 5 play ideas children can engage with just by following their intuition. Here they are free to experiment, understand and apply anything their innate creativity suggests.
Take time to observe the children, slow your pace along with them. Do not set any rules or explain how a play idea might be improved, simply listen to their stories and enjoy the quality of your time together.
1. “The Fairytale Forest”
A fairytale forest exists somewhere in the outdoor space around every house, school or daycare facility. It is a space children seek out to play by themselves with no, or very few toys, and where they use nature as the stage for their games, adventures and stories. This can be a shady place under a tree where light and shadow form particular patterns, or one near large stones where moss grows to form a green carpet for their stories and games.
If your children won’t have discovered this place in the outdoor space yet, you can prepare the environment: lay out Willow branches, some rocks and half cut smaller tree trunks to create an inviting retreat to serve as stage and scenery for the great stories and fairy tales children will invent.
2. “The Outline”
Children love rocks! They love throwing them, rolling them and using them to build things. «While the child builds up the tower, she is actually building herself too,» wrote German pedagogue, Hugo Kükelhaus (1900–1984) in his reflections on the ways that bodies are able to learn.
How about giving children an opportunity to compare natural shapes with their own shape? Feeling comfortable in space is something children need to experience starting with their own proprioception. Learning in outdoor spaces allows them to explore how their body feels comfortable in relation to the earth and gravity.
3. “The Cretan Labyrinth”
This is a place/space that kids can explore in all sorts of ways: barefoot for experimenting with their tactile sense, balancing on the edges, moving backwards, forwards and sideways, going inside and coming back outside, discovering shortcuts and playing with their sense of direction. The most fantastic thing for children, though, is actually building the labyrinth. They can use sticks, stones and ropes to do so, or dig it in sand, mud or grass.
Designing labyrinths challenges children and helps them discover the complexity within simplicity.
4. “The Humming Bucket”
Remember Peek-a-boo? While the goal here is not to help kids grasp the concept of object permanence, the Humming Bucket does make use of the psychomotor basics of that game, alternating light and darkness, sight and invisibility, and presence and absence. Here’s how it works: a child starts out by observing a bucket sitting on a tree stump outside in the daylight. She then puts her head inside the bucket and begins humming or buzzing to herself, experimenting with her auditory perception and feeling her body’s vibrations. She might choose to close her eyes to “look at” or simply concentrate on herself. Afterwards she will experience the joy of “resurfacing” into the daylight. The “humming bucket” construction can also be used to improve children’s communication and language skills, and to help them find their way to resilience. All you need is a plastic bucket (or a large vase or soup pot) and a tree stump!
5. “The Laundry”
Your own childhood memories play a crucial role in designing the Laundry. Do you remember the fresh smell of clean laundry hung up to dry in the backyard or garden? Do you remember the sensation of the washing brushing against your skin as you walked through? Wasn’t it just wonderful and tempting to play among these clothes lines? And wasn’t it a shame that your parents wouldn’t allow it? Can you recall the stories, adventures and playful ideas that were born in this laundry landscape?
A garden or the outside areas of preschools can easily recreate this wonderful opportunity for creative outpouring. Transferring this everyday experience to your outdoors prepared environment is a wonderful and playful way of promoting the development of a child’s physical abilities, movement patterns, social-emotional skills and imagination.
Illustrations: Tommaso Lana