Cultivating Nature-Based Play
In the spring of 2022, a small group of Upper School students in the Environmental Stewardship and Sustainability Certificate program engaged in a cross-divisional collaboration to develop outdoor learning experiences for Lower School students. This partnership resulted in the research, design and implementation of nature-based play activities and materials that encourage students to build, create, collaborate and engage with the natural world.
Lower School teachers had already been interested in expanding recess opportunities beyond organized activities like ball games. In 2022, as they looked toward the upcoming construction of the new lower school building and the temporary reduction of play structures after the removal of the blue playground, they wanted to cultivate a different way to play.
“The open green spaces that we now use for recess are good for throwing a ball, playing tag and spinning hula hoops,” said Marcy Sosa, director of Lower School. “But our students also enjoy creative play. Playing with natural materials, creating mud piles and building creative scenes for dramatic play are a part of the Lower School experience.”
Unstructured nature play, research shows, promotes creativity, teaches responsibility and stimulates the senses in a way that builds cognitive skills.
Alyson Goodner OPC ’96, director of the Center for Public Purpose, connected Sosa with Grace Agosto, Zady Hasse and Maia Kafer, all Class of ’24, and Noah Dacanay, now OPC ’23—students who were working toward earning an environmental certificate. The certificate builds upon the Quaker testimony of stewardship and aims to bolster critical thinking skills needed to explore the complex issues of environmental sustainability. Goodner had been working with this group of students to research the positive impact of nature-based play on the student experience and the long-term impact on environmental and civic engagement.
Sosa was enthusiastic about the students’ proposal to research ideas for nature-based play and present them to Lower School teachers as a potential recess activity. The next step toward realizing the vision would be to apply for a Lehr Fund grant to financially support it.
The Lehr Fund for Public Purpose Programming, established in 2019 by OPC parents Seth and Ellyn Lehr, enables students and teachers to design learning experiences that prepare graduates with skills and competencies to lead lives that make a difference. The grant application process itself is a learning experience for Upper School students.
“We had to have actual facts, not just that nature-based play was a good alternative but why it was and what benefits it would have for our students,” Grace said.
“Probably the biggest thing I learned,” Zady said, “was how do I work with multiple people on one document? How do we spread around the work? How do we bring all these ideas together and navigate our separate perspectives? When do we need to get feedback? I feel like all of that was as informative as researching the benefits of nature-based play.”
The Center for Public Purpose’s Lehr Fund committee approved the application in spring 2022. Included in the grant proposal was a plan to visit and explore area schools and programs with a nature-based play blueprint to learn about materials, successes and challenges from both teachers and students. Penn Charter’s own pre-K served as one of those site visits, as did The Miquon School, with its tenet that “the natural world is a place to learn.”
“I went to Miquon for elementary school,” Zady said, “and so I was really excited to share my experience with a different kind of recess that was a little more connected to outdoor spaces.”
Maia, another former Miquon student, visited Awbury Arboretum to learn about its summer camp program. Using materials they find in the woods, she observed, children “can do whatever they want within their boundaries. And they just started making a whole village—a whole civilization. I thought that was really interesting.
“I was reminded why this is important to me—because it's so open-ended that you can really be creative and do whatever you want.”
Another member of the nature play team was Geoffrey Trotter, a Middle School social studies teacher this year, and an Independent School Teaching Fellow in PC’s fifth grade last year. When Trotter was a teaching fellow at Miquon, prior to coming to Penn Charter, he became familiar with nature-based play and its positive impact on the student experience.
The students and Trotter, who began researching nature-based play models in the summer of 2022, presented their findings and a plan for a pilot program at Penn Charter to the Lower School faculty that fall.
Once approved, the students used the Lehr Grant funding to purchase materials and implement the pilot, which included specifics for play materials, as well as ways to organize and store them and to encourage children to care for them.
The fifth grade class became the first group to try out the materials, becoming “nature-based play ambassadors” for younger grades if they chose and providing feedback on the project.
Trotter watched the fifth grade students demonstrate both independence and stewardship of materials. “I could see an awareness of their surroundings and an accountability to take care of the space that all students shared,” he said.
The reusable materials “unlocked the creativity of students,” Trotter reflected. “They weren't designed for one use. I saw students really thinking outside the box and coming up with their own play ideas with these materials.”
Grace, Zady, Maia and Noah gathered insights from the fifth graders as well as ideas of norms the group should observe. “We went over some essential concepts—be constructive, be creative,” Zady said.
“We followed the approach of not telling people the rules right away but letting them come up with their own,” Grace added.
The Upper School students honed their plan while working with the fifth grade. They learned that they would need varied materials and shapes to keep children’s interest, such as sticks, slices of tree trunks, shells, pinecones, and also Stick-lets, colorful silicone connectors intended for building with sticks. They found that students would walk around and find their own materials to add to the mix, like leaves, flowers and tree bark. And they saw how imaginative and open-ended nature play is, as students built a bridge and a restaurant and a house built into the nook of a tree trunk.
“It was fun for us to be in this leadership position, and then for [the fifth graders] to kind of follow and be leaders with the younger kids,” Maia said. “It was fun to watch how they approached that.”
“This project would not only benefit students' awareness of the environment, but also allow them to connect with peers who might not have similar interests. We know from early research that students engaging in nature play also have opportunities to gain a sense of autonomy and independence by getting to explore and play by themselves or in smaller groups. Not only is this a skill that will benefit them for the rest of their lives, but it also decreases conflict with peers while playing. Nature play also allows for more options for creative thinking and tinkering. This variety can help increase creative problem-solving during play and is beneficial to all students.”
– Upper School students, in their Lehr Grant application
When the research was complete, the pilot program was a success, and the Lower School teachers gave their approval to roll out nature-based play to each class. After purchasing the materials this fall, Maia, Zady and Grace, now seniors, assembled natural materials into nature-based play kits in portable tubs that are stored in mini sheds wherever students have recess, from the Lower School Green and Perrott Field to the front field and Chigwell Close. They visited each grade to talk about the kits and review the nature-based play norms. The seniors joined Lower School recess to model and facilitate for the first week, and then, Grace said, “we just let them do it.”
“We often talk about the environment being the third teacher and how important nature-based play is for students,” Sosa said. “It also connects with our Quaker values around environmental sustainability and stewardship. This project came directly from our students and directly benefits our students.”
“This was an example of students actively sharing their lived experience with our school,” Goodner said. “Each of these Upper School students and Geoff understood the importance of nature-based play on their own learning or the learning of others. They recognized its potential to center the care of our natural and human communities in play, which can have a long term impact on students’ environmental and civic engagement.
“Throughout this experience, the students were courageous learners, following their curiosity, inviting others into the process at every stage and taking ownership of their education.”
– Rebecca Luzi