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The importance of natural elements in outdoor spaces in ECE

By Susan Herrington

The Seven C’s (character, context, connectivity, change, chance, clarity, and challenge) have been used by people all over the world to provide more developmentally-rich outdoor play spaces for children. An important dimension of the Seven C’s guide is the inclusion of natural elements in outdoor play areas. Plants can help reduce stress for both children and ECE teachers. Because plants change over time they can spark curiosity, the building block of scientific thinking. Many children enjoy watering and maintaining plants. Plants also provide play props – these are the leaves, capsules, and other droppings that can be used in pretend play. Since plants are cultural (with names and historical uses) they can teach us about traditional indigenous practices. Plants also encourage moral discussions. That’s because they attract insects, and children will often debate among themselves if the bug they’ve found should live or die. Lastly, plants provide dappled light, sunlight that is filtered through the leaves of plants, and this quality makes outdoor play environments more comfortable and enjoyable for all. 

Below are some quick tips for ways you might bring natural elements into your play environment.

Outdoor plants in pots

Many nurseries sell their plants in pots. Use a series of potted plants and arrange them in a circle so they create a little outdoor room for children (create a door by removing one of the pots from the circle). Children will often gravitate to these spaces. It’s an opportunity for them to feel like they have a private space, a need seldom met in care.

What types of plants?

New Zealand has amazing plants! Before you purchase a plant check with your nursery to be sure it is not poisonous. Some types of plants to consider are:

  • Ornamental grasses – these grasses have been very popular because they come in a variety of colours and textures. Many require little water and some are drought tolerant. Importantly, they change dramatically over time. Some grasses will grow 90cm in a season. Children will notice these changes!
  • Bamboo – there are many types of bamboo, and it’s important to keep them in their pots so they don’t take over the play area. Most bamboo is very tough and some bamboo likes to be played with vigorously. They are perfect for providing dappled light. They can also be used to create subspaces (little outdoor rooms).  Many children like to maintain clumping bamboo in a technique called ‘legging up’. This involves pulling down on the small, emerging, lower branches, and pulling them off. It gives the bamboo a leg look, hence ‘legging up.’ This technique returns more energy into the plant and gives the bamboo an airy look. It can expose interesting characteristics of the canes, such as unique colors and stripes, as well. The pulled bamboo branches can also be used as play props.

Cultural plants

Plants are cultural as well as natural. Many of New Zealand’s plants are endemic, meaning they are not found anywhere else in the world. These native plants not only serve as important symbols for Māori, but they have also been used for food, medicinal purposes, building material, and other daily practices. Integrating native plants can help provide a window into Māori culture, and help to acknowledge and affirm the wairua of Māori children and ECE teachers.

Climbing plants

Climbing natural elements requires more judgement than climbing equipment. When children climb a piece of play equipment they know that it’s been designed to take their weight and the bars are placed at standard distances apart from each other. However, when children climb a tree, they must ascertain if they can reach the branch and if it will hold them. Since trees are natural, their branches are not evenly spaced. If you don’t have a tree to climb, also consider bringing in felled trees, drift wood, roots of large trees, and rocks to climb. Like the tree, they are less predictable and children will need to determine the best way to climb.

Sand, mud and water 

These are natural elements that can be manipulated by children, and they can be mixed with plant play props. Many ECE teachers struggle with providing sand environments because of the potential of cats using the sand as a litter box. Solid covers typically create a dank sand box and, if they are large sand boxes (which are ideal for creative play), these solid covers can be very heavy to move. Tarps tend to dip and fill with standing water. The best material to cover a large sandbox is shade material, which is a knitted high-density polyethylene that enables air flow while keeping cats at bay.