Creating Confidence in Children

by Melissa Harding

We have been talking quite a bit lately about the importance of outdoor experiences for children; not only is interaction with nature proven to increase rates of physical activity, social interaction and create a sense of well-being, but it also aides in cognitive development (Source). While it is important for children to spend time outdoors with a trusted adult, it also important for them to be unsupervised (or at least feel like they are).  Letting children guide themselves and play alone without the presence of adults is often called “free play”. Free play helps children gain a sense of accomplishment and self-efficacy; it is rich in competency-building experiences and opportunities for discovery. What this means is that children learn how to 1.) achieve goals and take risks, 2.) how to take action to solve problems and 3.) how to care for the natural world.

Sounds pretty good, right?

Free play in nature is full of graduated challenges and risks (Chawla, 2007). This allows a child to experience a sense of accomplishment, such as when a he realizes that he can climb a tree that was previously too high or roll over a stone that was too big. This growing sense of accomplishment emboldens children to step into leadership roles and helps them deal with the anxiety or fatigue that can accompany working on difficult problems. Children learn that success requires hard work and that being challenged is not always bad (Chawla, 2009). The absence of adults during free play creates a sense of autonomy and freedom as well. Children can run, yell and be “wild” and loud, which is often discouraged indoors.

Conveniently, nature itself is already a fully equipped playground for this type of learning. The outdoors are full of materials to engage children, such as water for splashing, mud for molding, sticks and leaves for building and trees for climbing. These natural materials are called “loose parts” and they are proven to promote cooperative learning and creative social play (Chawla, 2007).  This is comes naturally to children; a child instantly knows what to do with a stick, as any parent can confirm. Making swords, having tea parties, building fairy houses, and constructing forts are intuitive activities.

Finally, the natural world is full of things to discover. Nature is not static, but always changing; the same areas are different in each season, always providing new things to explore and observe. Compared to a video game or television show, these outdoor experiences are more sensory and engaging (Chawla, 2009).

The good news is, free play is as easy as going outside. If you let your child play freely in nature, he will guide himself. You probably have your own memories of being a wild child in the woods; studies show that those experiences have made you who you are today. Allowing your child a similar freedom to explore and learn will create an important avenue for cognitive development.

For more information on how you can support your child’s free play in nature, check out this post.

For further reading about the effects of nature on child development, here are links to the sources used in this post:
Chawla, L. (2009). Growing up Green: Becoming an agent of care for the natural world. Journal of Developmental Processes. (4)1
Chawla, L. (2007). Childhood experiences associated with care for the natural world. Children, Youth and Environments, 17(4), 144-170.

The above pictures were taken by Christie Lawry and Amanda Joy.

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