Herbert Spencer maintained that the main purpose of the play was for children to get rid of excess energy and blow off steam (White, 2004). Early Childhood theorists, however, rejected this notion and explained the developmental value of play - especially play in the great outdoors.
The cultivation of plants and the domestication of animals allowed our ancestors to create permanent settlements where they could live and raise their children. It is therefore fundamental that we develop children’s understanding of our relationship with the natural world, where we fit in, and how important it is to protect and maintain our environment.
Strubbe (as cited in Phenice & Griffore, 2003) emphasises the importance of promoting young children’s conception of humans in relation to nature as an essential part of their cognitive and moral development. He argues that children should continue to see themselves as part of nature, therefore it is important for children to acquire, in ways that are developmentally appropriate, an ecological understanding of the interconnectedness of the natural world.
The Department of Education and Training (2017) states that natural environments support children to become environmentally responsible and show respect for the environment. Current research further shows that natural environments and outdoor play are beneficial to children in many ways.
Playing outdoors is also important for developing capacities for creativity, symbolic play, problem-solving and intellectual development.
Today due to increasingly high-density living, children’s lives are often disconnected from the natural world, and instead, their experiences are predominantly mediated in media and visual images. This, Chipeniuk (1995) argues, leads to children believing that nature is exotic, awe-inspiring and in far, far away places they will never experience.
Children are therefore losing their awareness and understanding that nature exists in their own backyards, communities and local parks. Sobel (1996) believes that promoting children’s empathy with the natural world should be one of the main objectives for children between the ages of four and seven. Sobel further advocates that in addition to regular contact with nature, one of the best ways to foster empathy during early childhood is to cultivate children’s relationships with animals. Animals, he reasons, are an endless source of wonder for children, fostering a caring attitude and sense of responsibility towards living things. Children interact instinctively and naturally with animals, talk to them, and invest in them emotionally.
Children’s experiences during early childhood should nurture the idea of being aware of and discovering nature. It is during early childhood that children develop their values, attitudes, and basic orientation toward the world that they will carry with them throughout their lives.
Interrelatedness with nature can be experienced by something as simple as eating an apple. This experience is an effective way to teach children how we connect with our environment. The apple comes from a tree that took in the sun, soil, rain, and air. Once our bodies digest the apple, we use these nutrients to grow and develop. We can add the apple core to compost which then becomes food for microbes and their waste re-enters the cycle of plant growth. Breathing is another excellent example of the importance of our relationship with the natural world. When we breathe in, our lungs take in oxygen that plants have produced. Breathing out, we release carbon dioxide which plants use to grow and produce more oxygen as well as fruit for people to eat.