Mother Nature Knows Best: How Unstructured Play Helps Lil’ Sprouts Grow

At the end of a dirt driveway, nestled in the heart of Amagansett and directly off the Montauk Highway on Long Island, sits the Amber Waves Farm. The site boasts a vegetable garden, an organic farm, and a flock of chickens, but while school is out it is also home to Our Sons and Daughters Summer Farm Program, which encourages children of all ages to learn how to tend the land and enjoy the great outdoors.

I have recently moved back to the United States, and though it is too late for my three-year-old daughter to participate in the Summer Farm Program, I have enrolled her in one of the programs Our Sons and Daughters offers during the school year, and I wanted to see their methods in action. The wooden sign leading to the main site was hidden on the day of my visit, and at first I missed it. Eventually, I find a woman named Maggie, an educator at the program who welcomes us with a warm, friendly smile and invites us to make ourselves at home. As my daughter and I approach the site, I sense I am entering a different world– and my intuition is right.

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Founded in 2008, Our Sons and Daughters draws on the Waldorf Early Childhood Education approach for its programming, encouraging whole child development. Confidence and self-reliance are supported by program leaders who guide by example rather than give explicit instruction. Activities– in this case, garden-focused activities– aim to build healthy habits for the future, fostering a reverence for both practical and creative work. The program’s routines are simple but meaningful, full of interactive teachings for a balanced and happy life, and all of them centered on nature and mindfulness.

The Our Sons and Daughters’ Summer Program moves with an easy rhythm over the course of the three hours. After drop off in the morning, the children have open play time before they help to wash the fresh produce that they picked the previous day (and that they will later enjoy as a snack). They are then taken on a daily walk through the farm, an experience that allows the children to observe the growth of different flowers and plants. Returning to the main site, the children have many different options during free play. Some use the brightly-colored cloth swings while others sit in a circle with an instructor drying freshly-picked flowers with a press.

The late morning circle follows shortly after and everyone gathers under the canopies. Maggie begins with her customary greeting, which is followed by a session of rhymes and play, and then a snack. The children gather around natural wooden benches and tables, and their chirping and chatter dies down. The children fold their hands and murmur a short blessing before digging into the food in front of them. When they are finished, the children clean their dishes under the acorn tree and gather for story time, waiting to be picked up by their parents. Amongst the splendor of wildflowers, with a belly full of fresh-from-the-farm mozzarella, bread, and plums, my daughter and I are content.

The effectiveness of garden classrooms is well-documented, but outdoor play can be valuable to children even without the structure of a classroom lesson. A Norwegian study conducted by Telemark University College concluded that time spent in the natural environment can aid in the development of basic motor skills. The multitude of textures and surfaces available outdoors are difficult to reproduce and their distinctiveness presents an excellent challenge for growing children. The beneficial effects of outdoor play are not limited to motor skills, however. In a Cambridge University Press book which surveyed various theories on children’s education, outdoor challenge programs were linked with improved confidence, autonomy, decision making, and interpersonal interactions. The same Cambridge University Press publication also found children engaged in more creative play while in green spaces. Additionally, several studies have found that green spaces can improve attention capacity.

As an educational concept, the Waldorf method has existed for close to a hundred years. Rudolf Steiner, the man behind Waldorf, was also responsible for the theory of biodynamic agriculture (a holistic approach to farming) and believed strongly in the importance of a close relationship with the natural world. Steiner’s philosophy rested on the importance of the individual and self-discovery. In our fast-paced modern world, it is important to take the time to reconnect with ourselves and the world around us, especially as we look towards not only our own future, but our children’s as well.

When I take my daughter outdoors, I can see that this is where she is happiest. She is alert but gentle, studying bugs that crawl on the ground or watching butterflies circle the flowers. But access to idyllic, pristine nature– especially in urban areas– can be a challenge. While playgrounds encourage an active lifestyle, their regulated structure can often inhibit the full effects of outdoor play. The less formal and managed the space, the more children are allowed to explore their own creativity.

For children, being out in the open air is a time of connection and discovery, physically and mentally. Simple activities that encourage interaction with the environment, like collecting petals to make a paper doll, can be beneficial to burgeoning imaginations. I’m disappointed that my daughter wasn’t able to attend the Summer Farm Program this year, but as a result of what I saw there, we will definitely be spending more time together in the great outdoors.

Our Sons and Daughters is a 501(c)3 Children’s Garden for Children Ages 3-6. They have a nursery program and a parent child program suitable for children as young as 18 months. During the school year, Our Sons and Daughters’ programs are located in Sag Harbor. For more information, address their contact info, below.

Our Sons and Daughters
11 Carroll Street
Sag Harbor, NY 11963
Info@oursonsanddaughters.org | (631) 725-1520

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