Lifelong Relationships With Natural Materials

By Dexter Lane, Nature Explore Consultant

392_058 You already know that profound, whole-body learning can be achieved when children play with natural materials. Objects such as stones, water, acorns, shells, pinecones, rocks and branches offer learning adventures that evolve as children grow.  Sensory-rich experiences, open-ended imaginative play, and what is traditionally viewed as academic learning are major features of children’s use of natural materials.

Plastic toys may be used until their form or function no longer interests the child.  They offer a period of play, and are then left behind.  Natural materials are never truly “thrown away.”   Their function to a child may evolve over time.  Experiences with natural materials, beginning in the world of play, long outlast the period of play offered by plastic toys.  Natural materials may change in form, break down or decompose, but they always return, in some form, with the potential to draw us into further experiences.

 Yet the deeper value of natural materials lies beyond their educative value.   They hold potentials for drawing us into relationships that may evolve over a lifetime.

Let’s take stone as an example.

Stones are ideal educational aids for intuitively learning the fundamentals of math and physics.  With small stones children learn many aspects of counting, classification and ordering (based on size, color, pattern etc.).  Concepts such as weight may be experienced at a basic level during play with stones of varying densities and sizes; simply by carrying them, or by more complex play involving construction and balance.

 These early understandings become internalized foundations for later learning.  Formal introduction of beginning math and physics concepts will be complemented by the fun, intuitive, whole-body learning from earlier play in nature.

Stones also have many functions in imaginative play.  They can form parts of a model house, or represent people and pets in a house.  They can be transformed into virtually anything by active imaginations.

Many children love to collect stones based on qualities that are personal to each child.  You may remember the blog story of the shy, withdrawn boy in an urban school, whose private stone collection from the school’s Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom earned the interest of his classmates.  Stones for this boy built a bridge to peer relationships.  Then there was the story of the mother annoyed with her son’s stones found in his pockets before laundering.  After he brought a new collection home in a pillbox, and described each stone’s special quality, she grew to cherish his insights and joined him in his collecting.  Again, a simple natural material leads to new depths of interpersonal experience.

The many valuable roles stone can play in a child’s life may be just the beginnings of a lifelong relationship.  The child who climbs or plays on rock may recall those experiences in later years as treasured memories.  This child may also grow to love rock climbing and camping.

In some cultures stone is regarded as art, and has the power to inspire profound life-long connections.  For centuries, the Chinese have used found stone as statuary, both indoors and out.  One Chinese art form prizes stones, of any size, that exhibit an ideal balance of shape and pattern.  My friend, a retired Chinese-Indonesian businessman, loves to wander areas where rocks of this quality are likely to be found.  His collection ranges from small stones on shelves, to table-top rocks, to the multi-ton boulder he had moved from the lowland jungle to his mountain home.  For him, rocks are art, spirit and tradition.

 The potentials for lifetime relationships with the natural world are seeded in early childhood—the earlier the better. Start planting these seeds today.  It’s never too early to begin exposing children to nature.  Daily connections are best.  The child whose early play experiences involve extensive engagement with natural materials is primed for later schooling, and ripe for lifelong relationships with the natural world.

For many detailed examples of learning across many domains through play with natural materials, please see our book: “Growing With Nature: Supporting Whole-Child Learning in Outdoor Classrooms,” available through the Nature Explore website


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