How beautiful are parent and tot classes. A parent and child get to spend time with one another making new discoveries, trying new things and meeting new people. They are worthwhile experiences to participate in if we are able to make it work with our schedules.

Although we love all parent and tot classes, as an Outdoor Learning Centre we wanted to focus on the specific research based benefits of parent and tot classes that take place in nature. What are the benefits? Are there different findings on child and parent engagement when the class takes place in a natural space versus in an indoor space?

When looking only at my own parent anecdotal findings by taking my daughter to a nature play outdoor program versus an indoor play program I feel as though our experiences differed in various ways. Firstly, the ability to move freely around our space while outside was welcomed as my daughter is a very active learner! Secondly, sharing of toys seemed to come more naturally in an outdoor setting mostly because the “toys” were things found in nature such as sticks, leaves and loose parts. Lastly and probably most notably was how the rest of our day transpired after the outdoor class. We both left feeling more energized and at the same time calm and relaxed. Independent play and family mealtimes came easier in the afternoon, there were far less power struggles and clingy behavior. My theory is that this is because of the well known health and healing benefits of nature, as well as filling her cup on one on one parent interaction time. I personally did not find these same things happening consistently when we joined the indoor parent and tot classes.

However this is simply my own personal experience and I wanted to dive deeper into the research behind parent and tot classes that occur in nature versus an indoor setting (I get quite excited over new research findings in the area of childrens play!) I will try to synthesize as best as possible what I found on my search.

The first finding from a study followed 18 parent and child pairs and analyzed the communication occurring between parent and child in two different environments (indoor and outdoor). The two environments have similar themes, and has opportunities for hands-on activities. Video cameras worn by the children (age 3- 4) and the parents captured their verbal communication during 15-minute explorations in the two environments. An analysis of the recordings showed that the children were significantly more talkative in the natural environment than in the indoor environment and that parent-child connected communication was significantly longer in the natural setting. This means that longer and more meaningful interactions were occurring between parent and child when the class took place outdoors. (Cameron-Faulkner, Melville, Gattis, 2018).

The next study interviewed mothers attending nature play sessions with their children (ages 0-5), and were asked about the impact of the program. Their responses of the major outcomes of the program included: enhanced interpersonal relationships (with other parents and to their children), connections to nature, and emotional wellness. Similar to my own personal anecdotal findings these mothers noted an improvement in family relationships both inside and outside of the program. The mothers saw the value of spending time in nature with their children because of the direct impact on their emotional wellness, increasing their feelings of calm and mindfulness (Ward, Goldingay, Parson, 2019).

The final study looked at the long term benefits of child contact with nature on adult personality. The researchers looked at the frequency of child experiences in nature and their adult personality, including Neuroticism (anxiety and depression) and Opennes (creative imagination, intellectual curiosity).

After surveying 783 adults they found that the more the children had contact with forest environments, the more they learned emotional regulation strategies. This in turn predicted lower levels of Neuroticism and higher levels of Openness as adults. This connection was a direct cause of nature experiences as children, and not a result of the repeated use of nature in adulthood (Snell, Simmonds, Klein, 2020). The study adds to our understanding of the potential long-term impact of childhood nature experiences and the direct benefits for our children.

Along with everything I have read before about the benefits of spending time in nature, these studies helped to confirm my anecdotal findings for outdoor parent and tot classes. The feelings of increased positive communication and emotional wellness I personally experienced was also experienced by many other parents who attended these outdoor parent-child programs. Not only do I have a preference for them but when the research also points to increased benefits for my child all the way to adulthood, that makes me feel really good about continuing to choose the outdoors.
Are you personally familiar with the two different types of programs? What is your personal experience?

Written by Mariah Kontopoulos 

Research: 

Cameron-Faulkner, T., Melville, J., Gattis, M. (2018). Responding to nature: Natural environments improve parent-child communication. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 59, 9-15.

Snell, T. L., Simmonds, J. G., & Klein, L. M. (2020). Exploring the impact of contact with nature in childhood on adult personality. Urban Forestry and Urban Greening, 55, 1-9.

Ward, T., Goldingay, S. & Parson, J. (2019). Evaluating a supported nature play programme, parents’ perspectives. Early Child Development and Care, 189(2), 270-283.

One Comment

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