recess time in order to ensure enough time for academic work. This is a false
choice, especially as it relates to young children, since children actually engage
in rich intellectual work and a significant amount of STEM learning during
unstructured play, particularly when that time is spent in nature-based set-
tings. Eliminating the opportunity for play is simply counterintuitive, since we
know it is so important for children’s health and well-being.

How Nature Supports the Development of Soft
Skills In addition to building vocabulary, social-emotional skills, and others, engag-
ing in STEM outdoors can help nurture creativity, collaboration, critical
thinking, and communication skills, a set of characteristics that are often
referred to as “soft skills” or “twenty-first-century
skills”—although most people would agree these
are timeless qualities! Spending time outdoors in
natural settings has a number of powerful effects
on children, including increased self-control and
better motor coordination, judgment, self-esteem,
concentration, and ability to focus. In addition,
children participate in more creative and coopera-
tive play with others, and develop communication
and critical thinking skills when given plenty of
access to nature (Chawla 2012). These are the same
inter- and intrapersonal skills that are facilitated
Children have plenty of opportunities for creative
through high-quality engagement in the practices
play and social connections outdoors.

of STEM.

SELF-REGULATION Self-regulation is defined as the ability to control one’s body and emotions as
well as managing one’s focus and attention (Phillips and Shonkoff 2000). During
nature play, children have many opportunities to practice self-regulation. Con-
sider this example of children picnicking at the water’s edge: A flock of ducks
comes waddling up, hungry for scraps of torn sandwich crusts. Although chil-
dren may squeal with delight and squirm with excitement, they discover that
keeping relatively still and speaking in hushed tones will keep the ducks from
flying away. They quickly realize what sorts of behavior—slow movements, quiet
voices—will encourage the ducks to remain close, allowing the children more of
a connection with the animals.

24 Chapter 2