Time to Wonder in the Natural World: Developing Imagination, Creativity and Inventiveness

By Sarah Wright, Head Teacher

Sudden gusts of wind blow

Showering down gingko-leaf-snow

Who made that happen?

I could not see

Who made the leaves dance around me?

Running down the hill, chased by the wind, a three-year-old stops dead in his tracks. He looks up to the sky, transfixed as a gust of wind leads the dance of falling yellow gingko leaves. As each golden leaf swirls around his body, the child turns to me squealing, “Do that again, teacher.” Honoring his receptivity to the moment, I smile, acknowledging the obvious delight he takes in soaking up the richness of his world.

The magical moment, which inspired me to write the poem above, took place at Bing, a nursery school designed to cater to young children’s joyful spirits and their profound connection to the natural world. This particular setting allows children the freedom to delight in their own sensory discoveries while stimulating the child’s imagination, creativity and inventiveness.

In this environment, young children interact with nature, eagerly absorbing the sounds, feels, tastes and smells of the natural world. The outside is considered

a classroom, where children play and

discover, observe and collect, categorize and illustrate, fantasize and imagine, invent and hypothesize. They have the chance to create their own rules, to imagine limitless possibilities and to express their inventiveness.

These opportunities seem much more limited for young children today. Heavily structured schedules, which often include organized sports on manicured playing fields, or rule-riddled play in prescriptive playgrounds, seem to lack the sensory nourishment and the possibility of discoveries on which young children thrive.

At Bing we strongly advocate play in the natural environment, and argue that natural settings are essential for healthy child development. We believe outdoor play provides multisensory experiences that stimulate the imagination, creativity and inventiveness observable in almost any group of children playing in a natural setting. But, how do natural spaces and materials stimulate children’s limitless imaginations and serve as the medium of creativity and inventiveness?

On closer observation of children’s play in West PM, it appears that the yard provides children with free space; space that is at their disposal, space that is manageable, and space that has unlimited variables. Such variables include sand, water, dirt, hills, the bridge, black top, grasses, plants, pine cones, trees, flowers, berries, twigs, sticks, birds, bugs and animals. According to the “loose-parts” theory described by architect Simon Nicholson in the 1970s, these elements are essential for children’s creative development. He states: “In any environment, both the degrees of inventiveness and creativity, and the possibility of discovery, are directly proportional to the number and kinds of variables in it.” (How Not To Cheat Children: The Theory of Loose Parts, Alternate Learning Environments, ed. Gary Coates,1974) The different variables offered in the Bing yards are open-ended; that is, children can, and do, use these variables in many creative ways to support their play.

A recent example of how children use these variables involves a toy baby and some gingko leaves. Horace had been car-rying his baby around in the yard to keep him warm and safe, but when he wanted to go on the swing he didn’t want to just put the baby down. So, carefully, he scooped up a pile of ginkgo leaves to form a nest-like cradle to support his baby doll.

A second example involves the movable barrels and red benches. The staff lined up four benches in a row, and then on top of each bench set a barrel lying on its side. What effect would these structures have on group play in the yard? We saw that this new placement encouraged more fantasy, make-believe play, and in particular provided a set-up for boys and girls to play together in egalitarian ways. One group that climbed on top of the barrels informed me that they were flying to Vegas on unicorns and would be back in time for snack!

We have observed that when children’s play is fantasy-based and the play structures are less prescriptive, physical competence does not usually determine the play leader. Instead, social standing becomes based more on language skills, creativity and inventiveness.

In her book Child Care Design Guide, (2001), Anita Rui Olds, PhD, suggests that children need extensive opportunities to be outside, as nature best provides us “with some of our most comforting experiences—wafting breezes, babbling brooks, sunlight dancing on leaves.”

As well as providing children with a sense of comfort, using outdoor space in creative ways serves two other functions. Firstly, it creates an ever-changing palette of interest that children can experience in their immediate environment. As Lilian Katz, PhD, strongly posits, the curriculum for young children must “include frequent opportunities for active firsthand investigation and direct observation.” (What to look for when visiting early childhood classes. Gifted Child Today, 30, No. 3, (pp. 34-37), 2007.)

Secondly, the attention and work necessary to keep up this environment not only connects the children to this space, but also makes the children accountable to it. The intentional investment in the environment by the whole school community, such as planting gardens or composting, has an impact on its identity. The yard becomes a cared-for space, a space that belongs to the children and teaches them respect for their environment.

“For ourselves, and for our planet, we must be both strong and strongly connected—with each other, with the earth. As children, we need time to wander, to be outside, to nibble on icicles, watch ants, to build with dirt and sticks in the hollow of the earth, to lie back and contemplate clouds…”

(The Geography of Childhood, Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble, 1994.)