Nature scout

See how dirty feet can boost critical thinking.    

By Ann Sullivan-Cross

Web Editor at LeapFrog

Ann Sullivan-Cross is LeapFrog's Web Editor, and when she's not chasing after her three kids, she's out running in the woods.

Freedom. It’s not an easy thing to bestow upon our children, especially in this day and age. As a parent of young children, there's a continual inner struggle that goes on between wanting to give them the freedoms I enjoyed growing up and the fear of what happens if I do. Whether or not to allow my young daughter to manage her lemonade stand in our front yard on her own is the kind of question my parents never asked themselves. Letting two toddler boys roam the backyard for stretches at a time, another.

When I spy my boys throwing dirt and picking up rocks, hopefully not to chuck at each other, I am grateful they’re "getting dirty." And though they won't be roaming the neighborhood as I did as a child (at least not until they're much older), I make it a point to allow for freedoms where I can. When my daughter leads them in a hunt for roly-poly bugs through a patch of dirt, I try to let them be, to not involve myself with their world. This is where they learn to become the masters of their own learning.

Child-directed play

In contrast to our modern world of scheduled play dates and engrossing apps, I relish lazy afternoons when Saturday means no screen time and my kids find ways to entertain themselves through imaginary play. By stepping back and letting them direct their exploration—whether that means creating a worm house or turning a slide into a water slide—they are developing problem solving and critical thinking skills. Even the smallest of successes are fun to watch. When my two-year-old lifts a "big rock," a quick flash of triumph lights up his face.

We all want our kids to grow up to be well-adjusted, independent beings. Allowing children little freedoms from a young age puts them on a path to becoming competent learners and self-reliant adults. The Reggio Emilia philosophy of learning—which came out of Italy after World War II—posits that children should be empowered to take control over their learning to ensure they are prepared for the challenges of life. In Reggio Emilia preschools, this manifests as child-guided learning environments where teachers do not give direct instruction but rather support children-led projects. On a given day children may work with tools to help build a ladder for a new play structure, dig a new sand pit or paint a mural. Empowering young kids to learn how to use tools safely is a basic part of the curriculum. When children have ideas for new projects, teachers guide and support their efforts to gather resources and ensure safety, but rarely instruct.

Exploring nature, uninhibited

I try to extend this philosophy at home and especially when it comes to the natural world. Instilling a love of nature in my kids and keeping them connected to the natural world is very important to me. The best way I've found to do this is simply to let them kick off their shoes and feel the grass, sand or dirt beneath their feet. In fact, coming in contact with and even eating dirt is beneficial to kids’ immune systems. Loosening the reins, I let their curiosity and sense of fun lead them (as I try to suppress my natural tendency to be over-protective.) It’s a joy to see them pick up worms and snails, their small hands covered in mud. I may prod them with open ended questions like, “I wonder why crabs have shells?” to help kick-start some critical thinking, but otherwise I let them be.

By allowing children to get their feet dirty, by giving them the space to effect change, however small, we are helping them develop with self-reliance and confidence. When we tell our little girls and boys that it is okay to go out into the world, to explore, to make sense of it in their own way, we nurture a basic sense of freedom and security in them. We are essentially giving them what is their birthright. 

Additional Resources:

Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder

Free-Range Kids, How to Raise Safe, Self-Reliant Children (Without Going Nuts with Worry) 

Babies Know: A Little Dirt Is Good for You, New York Times