So where should all this free play and child-led learning take place?
The great outdoors is an unbeatable playground and classroom with its abundant potential for sensory stimulation and ever-changing play and learning props from fallen leaves, fir cones and fossils to seeds and slugs and snails. Moreover, in addition to the fascinating and hugely educational environment that the natural world provides, the scope to move freely when outdoors also brings about neurological advantages.
Physical exploration enables the brain to make a wealth of connections and vestibular action (twisting, turning and rocking movements) also stimulates the brain. Research in Sweden showed the children were twice as active outdoors than indoors, whatever they were doing (in Pound 2009). Such movement, whether it be from balancing on logs or climbing trees, helps in the development of spatial awareness and proprioception (the knowing of where your body is in space, even if your eyes are shut), prompting brain mapping which in turn contributes to children’s cognitive abilities (Tovey cites Risotto and Giuliani 2006 in Pound 2009).
The great outdoors brings risks of course, which is a large part of the reason why so much of modern childhood takes place within artificially landscaped playgrounds, but as research psychologist Penelope Leach argues in House 2011:
“There is much that can be said about the importance of allowing children to play freely even though that involves risks; and about how important it is to let them actually take risks as they play, because they have to learn to understand which situations are risky, and manage themselves in them.”