“Children today spend significantly less time outdoors than previous generations,” writes Strategic Impact Grant awardees Erika Englund and Natalia Bernal (LeConte TK and Kindergarten teachers) and Laura Figueroa (Pediatric Occupational Therapist/LeConte parent). “Many factors have contributed to our children’s lack of access to play in nature, including rapidly-advancing technology and increased ‘screen time,’ lack of easy access to nature in urban environments, over-scheduling, decreased school recess time, and increased academic content standards during early years of education. These factors have far-reaching unfortunate effects for our children: childhood mental health disorders (such as depression or anxiety), childhood obesity, and diagnoses of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder are all on the rise in American children.”
With such stark realities and additional scary research coming out every few months, Englund, Bernal, and Figueroa wanted to address these effects in their own students. In their application for a Strategic Impact Grant for “Monthly Forest Day for LeConte TK & Kinder Students,” they write, “A wide body of research supports the benefits of children’s play in nature to support the skills needed for both classroom learning and for life.” From improving gross and fine motor skills to physical fitness, from problem solving to linguistic skills and emotional regulation, regular play in nature is shown to improve a huge range of life and academic skills.
This past year, 76 LeConte TK and Kinder students took monthly field trips to Joaquin Miller Park for an Inquiry Play Forest Day. Students (and parent volunteers) broke into four groups, and each group had a dedicated “home” space within the forest that they returned to with each trip. From here they could observe changes in the forest from season to season, have a familiar safe space, and a place to continue lessons and games from previous trips.
Each visit to the forest began with a snack and an original song to greet the forest. “Then the students were given time to play freely in their class’s area—in the streams, under the bushes, on the hills, in the clearings. The children played very hard—built tiny homes for animals, chased each other as ‘the lava monster,’ challenged their bodies to climb muddy hills, and explored how the water moved in the stream.”
In addition to child-directed play, these visits also built on lessons and stories taught in and out of the classroom throughout the year. Englund, Bernal, and Figueroa write, “The time spent immersed in the forest will be divided into two activities. One is a teacher-directed academic lesson with a science, environmental, or math focus. This lessons will be place-based and experiential, designed to teach important science or math standards that engage students with the environment and help them develop an inquiry mindset that will support their learning in other areas.”
Play was also supported by books like The Three Billy Goats Gruff or provocations from teachers meant to encourage imaginative play. “The teacher will not try to impart knowledge, but will help kids work collaboratively and make meaning of their experiences in the moment.”
The awardees write, “The Inquiry Play Forest Day project (known as ‘bosque’ in our dual immersion community) was even more successful and appreciated that we had imagined.” They even included notes from parents and students:
“We are really happy that our teachers made the effort to incorporate outdoor nature education into the kindergarten curriculum. It was a wonderful surprise. The kids work so hard in kindergarten learning math, reading, and writing, and they are negotiating new and complicated social relationships. But the opportunity to be outside, and for kids to learn eco-literacy and to engage in exploration and adventure is great. Getting dirty and playing in the woods helps to increase confidence, to instill environmental values, to foster a sense of responsibility toward others, and to provide a sense of curiosity about the world. The fact that our kids are going to school in a sub/urban setting makes this all the more important. I feel lucky that my child had the opportunity to participate in this program, and we will miss it next year.” —LeConte Parent
“I like getting dirty and playing in the bosque. It’s fun to get wet, and to make stuff with the mud. There are trees with lots of roots and you can make a tree house, and there is a hill you can climb up on.” —LeConte Student
“En el bosque es segura y también puedes respirar.” (In the forest it’s safe and also you can breathe). —LeConte Student
“On every return from one of these trips [my daughter is] always so proud to tell me how muddy she got and how high the dirt came up on her pants this time. The higher the dirt mark, the prouder she is! Thank you so much for giving her this opportunity to explore and just be outside and play.” —LeConte Parent