If you have ever observed young children watching a ladybug, playing in a pile of leaves, or digging for worms, you have witnessed the joy and wonder they experience when engaging with the natural world.
Research confirms what we have intuitively known – human beings not only enjoy being in nature; we need nature for our physical and emotional well-being.
That need does not stop during a pandemic. With the children in my remote PreK class largely confined to their urban homes, I needed to reimagine the role of nature in our experiences.
While we could not be together in the natural world, I could bring the nature to the children through materials in their Learning at Home packets, invite their families to encounter nature in ways they felt were safe, and encourage the children to explore the wonder of nature through carefully chosen time-lapse videos.
This post focuses on our exploration of design using natural materials. The next will describe ways that nature became a common thread of inquiry during our remote experiences.
The benefits of nature play for young children – better physical health, greater focus and pro-social behavior, increased problem-solving skills, and a connection to and respect for the natural world - are wide-ranging.
Classroom environments infused with natural materials also support children’s development by adding a sensory richness to their explorations while fostering their creativity and curiosity about the world around them. And, because natural materials are regenerative and can often be acquired without cost, their use has both environmental and economic advantages.
What and How…
I gathered many of the materials from my neighborhood.
Natural materials - sticks, bark, leaves, pinecones, stones, coral
I collected the leaves, sticks, pinecones, and bark from my yard and neighborhood, and purchased a bag of small river rocks from a craft store for $4.00. I included small pieces of coral which I had purchased for a workshop, but I seashells are a free or inexpensive alternative
The cups for organizing the materials were 12 for $1.00 at a “dollar store”. The total cost was just over $1 per child.
Design nurtures creativity...
Children can explore and re-imagine their ideas without the limitations of a permanent product.
fosters symbolic representation...
Design encourages children to see beyond what is to what could be – a leaf can become a spaceship or an eye on a face.
Manipulating objects allows young children to create detailed abstract and representational art that they are not yet able to draw or paint.
and embraces sustainability.
Since a photograph is the only permanent “product” of design, the materials can be reused or returned to the earth. Artist Andy Goldsworthy is famous for his beautiful and ephemeral designs, created with materials he encounters in nature.
"Rowan leaves laid around a hole" - Goldsworthy, 1987
Tate Linden aptly describes the impermanent quality that distinguishes design from other visual art forms in this quote: “Design is an opportunity to continue telling the story, not just to sum everything up.”
Selecting and presenting materials...
I chose materials with a variety of shapes, colors, and textures. I also considered their ability to replicate straight and curved lines and their potential for layering to create detail and depth.
Cutting the sticks to an equal length enabled children to create objects and shapes, like the hexagon pictured below. The green leaves, white coral, and black stones added a pop of color to the sticks, bark, and pinecones.
(Leaves will stay green for several weeks if placed in a plastic bag and refrigerated when not in use.)
Presenting small quantities of materials in a way that highlights their beauty draws children into the experience and encourages them to make intentional choices.
When designing with larger materials outdoors, the children determine the size and shape of the design space. Working with smaller materials at home, a design surface provided structure for the experience and a framework for the designs, just a canvas provides a framework for paintings. I created simple design mats from construction paper. Felt, tree cookies, and mirrors could also be used – each creating a unique backdrop for the materials.
First, we explored the materials during Morning Meeting.
While all of the children recognized the leaves and sticks; the pinecones, bark, and particularly the coral were less familiar. We talked about how the objects felt and where they came from. The children, accustomed to living in an urban environment, were surprised that I found most of the items in my yard and neighborhood.
I invited the children, with an adult's help, to learn more about the materials and posed some questions to explore: Can pinecones be different shapes and sizes? Is all coral white? Why do trees have bark?
Then, the children and I created a simple design together.
I began by making a square with sticks.
When I added a triangle, the children said it looked like a house.
I asked the children what we could add to the house, and they suggested a door.
So, we made a door using..
stones pinecones small sticks
They preferred the door made with sticks and thought we should use a stone to add a doorknob.
This process demonstrated two fundamental aspects of design:
Different materials can express the same idea
Experimentation and revision are integral to the process
The children created their own designs during our individual meetings at Choice Time.
Their designs, like those below created by preschoolers who worked with me in a Studio setting, reflected the detail and complexity young children can express through the design process.
Abstract design A girl and apple trees
Part of my role during Choice Time was that of facilitator, just as it would be for in-person learning. I watched and listened, made observations, and asked open-ended questions. During remote learning, I took on an additional role – play partner.
In school, the children would typically work with a small group of peers, and ideas would naturally flow among them. Without those spontaneous peer interactions, I cautiously became a more active participant. I followed each child’s lead – sometimes imitating their idea or creating a variation, other times describing a new idea as I worked – always mindful of the fine line between scaffolding and directing an experience.
In the weeks that followed, we used these materials to make patterns, “write” letters, and create self-portraits.
The children embraced my invitation to “research” answers to the questions I posed about the materials, and this process became a regular part of our other encounters with nature that will be the focus of my next post.