by Lee Smith Bravender

It’s a Nature Play revolution, y’all. Years ago, MBGNA committed to providing families with opportunities for outdoor play – for Nature Play –  at Gaffield Children’s Garden located in the display gardens at our Matthaei Botanic Garden location. We were ahead of our time. Nearly every week, I read new research about tangible human health and wellbeing impacts of interactions with Nature. Equally often, I read research about child development and the important role of play as a behavior of learning and formation, especially for young children. This intersection of early childhood Nature access and play equity is of significant impact today. If access to quality outdoor spaces provide tangible human health benefits, and if play offers tangible learning and health benefits, then MBGNA has a rich opportunity to advocate for more of this – for more Nature Play – for all families and children, locally, statewide, and nationally. At Gaffield Children’s Garden, we are all in on outdoor play for young children because we recognize that outdoor play is essential, healthy human development, a potential pathway to adult pro-Earth behaviors, and is a powerful behavior of learning. 

A young child in a purple shirt with hands in front holding two large bubblesPlay is simple and complex. Nature Play centers at Gaffield Children’s Garden are based on the many sciences of play. Drawing on Hughes Taxonomy of Play, which identifies 16 distinct types of childhood play, GCG offers dramatic play, creative play, symbolic play, deep play, risky play, and more. Inspired by Howard Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences, Gaffield Children’s Garden recognizes and offers environments to support the exercise of many types of intelligences, including the Naturalist intelligence. We lean in on loose parts play as a philosophical practice. Loose parts play offers open-ended materials, play environments and experiences to encourage problem solving. Loose parts play paves the way for critical thinking, allowing even young children to pose their own intellectual questions, experiment with making things work according to their own creative impulse, and to figure out how to make their own ideas work. With a grounding in play schema research, Gaffield Children’s Garden provides ample opportunities for the important child development practices of transporting, transforming, orienting, connecting, and many others. Wow – play is serious business!

photo of children creating potions from a variety of nature ingredientsGCG models easily replicable Nature Play, and those of us working in this space – staff and volunteers – also model our own curiosity about the natural world, when, instead of knowing all the answers, we respond to questions with “I wonder..” statements and “Ooh, let’s take a closer look at that…” We host curiosity supporting events like Things with Wings in July, and in October, we host Pumpkins, Lanterns, and Leaves to support families in their own development of a Nature-appreciating and outdoor-exploring family culture. We host lightly guided, low barrier Nature Play with our Summer Nature Play Pop-ups, happening now through late August and and offer Nature-Play-at Home guides on our website so families can activate their own Nature Play wherever they find themselves.

Gaffield Children’s Garden is a sensory rich, immersive, nature play environment. MBGNA knows open-ended nature play is recorded in children’s hearts and souls, in their memory and imaginations, to be recalled many times in their lives, to be transformed into creative impulse, scientific exploration, the ability to think broadly and widely, and to carry a desire to help the future of our Earth. Viva la Nature Play!