When Nature is Not Natural: Supporting Children Who are Uncomfortable with Outdoor Play 

Not all kids are born loving the great outdoors. For some, “nature” is synonymous with dirty, scary, and unpleasant. How can we help these children change their associations with the natural world and learn to see it as an exciting, fun, and comforting place?

A few years ago I had a student (I’ll call her Tanya) who absolutely hated Forest Fridays because she didn’t want to get her clothes dirty–until she did. Fast forward to the last day of school when we went to the beach and Tanya had a meltdown at the end of the day because she did not want to put her shoes back on after being in the sand and water virtually all day. I considered this meltdown a sign of a successful transformation from a nature-fearing to a nature-loving child.

The key to Tanya’s transformation was quite simple: I mostly ignored her. I know I know, I’m a terribly negligent teacher. But hear me out. The first few days in the forest I tried everything I could think of to encourage Tanya to participate and get comfortable being in the dirt. For every argument I made in favor of why it was OK for her to sit on the ground, she was prepared with six counterarguments. While 21 children sat, Tanya stood. When it came time to play and explore, Tanya held back and tried to convince her friends to draw with her or do anything that didn’t involve actually touching dirt or bugs. They guiltily told her thanks but no thanks.

Eventually I gave up trying to persuade Tanya to do things my way, and I just let her sit back and watch everyone else have fun. I stopped fighting her and let her stand instead of sit. (This was a hard one for me, because I am a firm believer in everyone following the “group plan.”) Slowly but surely, Tanya found her way into the group.

The real turning point came with the first rain. As I have mentioned in previous posts, our forest site has a natural swamp that forms once a significant amount of rain falls. It is a scientific fact that no child (and most adults) cannot resist the temptation to jump in a mud puddle. Sure enough, one day I watched with amazement as Tanya dipped first just a toe, then a whole foot, into the swamp. Next thing I knew she was knee-deep in the mucky, squishy mud and squealing with delight.

In the weeks that followed, Tanya was spotted painting her face with charcoal, bushwhacking her way through thick bramble to reach a secret hideout, and, most notably, letting a garter snake slither over her hands. I could hardly believe this was the same child who, only months earlier, had steadfastly refused to let her her clothes come in contact with dirt.

Not all kids who are hesitant about playing in nature will undergo such thorough transformations as Tanya did, and that’s OK. Meet them where they are. Let them take the lead. Never force a child to do something that scares them or makes them uncomfortable, for that is the fastest way to ensure they will never do it again. Be their guide on the side and their biggest chearleader. Encourage, comfort, and engage. Above all, lead by example.