Sobel’s Nature Design Principles in Action

25 January 2016 · 10 comments

in Interesting Issues & Hot Topics, Nature Play & Learning, Outdoor Play, Whole School

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I am just finishing reading David Sobel’s fascinating book Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. This past weekend, we took a trip as a family to Bennachie Nature Centre in Aberdeenshire and I couldn’t help viewing the outing through my new “design principle” glasses. I saw the principles coming to life in my own children, an experience which itself was an example much like those Sobel discusses in his book of making learning real. Our outing provided a meaningful experience which helped to solidify the learning I had done in the classroom (my living room).


For those of you who may not be familiar with Sobel’s design principles, Juliet previously summarised them nicely here. Briefly, Sobel has identified seven common motifs through which all children play and suggests that educators (and parents) should consider these principles when planning learning for children so that we might “create a love of place” as well as “academic and social competence” (Sobel, 2008).

I didn’t observe all of Sobel’s principles in action on this particular occasion. This is certainly the norm. Often it is possible to see a combination of principles coming together in one play session. For example if a child makes a den for a little stick man, this may be a combination of Forts and dens, fantasy and miniature world play coming together.


Here is my take on what I did observe.


Before we left the house that morning, we talked about where we were going and what we might do. I made a point of framing our outing as an “adventure” rather than just “a walk in the woods”. As Sobel suggests, simply changing your frame of reference can make for a completely different experience even if you follow the very same path you would on a “walk”. During the drive, we heard the typical “Are we there yet?” far more often than usual which I think attested to the increased level of excitement about our impending adventure. Once we arrived, the kids were off like a shot!


Fantasy and Imagination & Special Places

At one point, we came upon a trail off of the main path that led down a little hill, under some branches and into an enclosed wooded area with a small stream and a stump. It was great fun to watch how my girls reacted when I strongly encouraged them to follow the path. They seemed to instantly enter an imaginary world when they discovered the area. My almost 4-year old immediately decided that one portion of the enclosure was the kitchen, sat down on the stump and started making porridge.


At one point, she took her gloves off and was pressing her hand into the soft moss growing on the stump and she even proceeded to lie down in a particularly secluded little spot perhaps pretending that was her bedroom. My older daughter seemed a little surprised when I said “Yes!” after she asked if she could put her boot into the little stream. They had so much fun in this little fantasy world they had created in a matter of seconds! I am fairly sure they could have spent the rest of the day in this special place they had discovered. Next time, I may just bring a chair and a good book!


Maps and Paths

It wasn’t difficult to see this principle in action on our adventure! We picked up a map of Bennachie when we arrived and throughout our adventure, the girls were keen to look at it as well as help us to spot the signs indicating which direction we were looking to go. Along the way, it seemed it was almost impossible for the girls not to spot and want to follow every little trail we came across.


In addition to trails, it seemed all of the fallen logs were inviting the girls to attempt to balance on them and every stream and rivulet called to them to follow their paths. Sticks practically jumped into their hands and chunks of ice they found lying on the ground near a pond shouted to them to drop them near the open culvert to see where they would travel.


When the next morning I came across the girls dressed up in their gear carrying around the map of Bennachie pretending they were on another adventure, I felt sure we had succeeded in providing them with an “indelible experience of true immersion in the natural world” (Sobel, 2008).


So the next time you get out and about, observe your children and see which principles are happening.

This blog post and photos were written by Andrea Stevenson, a Creative STAR associate.  

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Robinson January 26, 2016 at 12:47

Our family has a thing for ‘secret paths’. You cannot go for a walk or ride without *having* to explore them.
If there are streams, they must be paddled in, and if the pipe or bridge big enough, you *have* to go through them.
I am also a sucker for learning some of the history and myths of places we visit – meanings of place names are a good start – and this helps the imagination get going…
I also find that being able to record or see from a different view helps – a camera or binoculars encourages real observation and new views….


Juliet Robertson January 26, 2016 at 17:26

Thanks Matt – I think your comment about a camera or binoculars is insightful. Very often it is how we choose see things and not how they actually are that gives a sense of perspective too – albeit a different one from scale or position. Perhaps its whether the metaphorical and the literal meanings merge.


Jan White January 26, 2016 at 15:59

I too am very inspired by Sobel’s principles and see them clearly in young children’s play. Weaving his ideas with those of Jay Appleton (geographer writing in 1970’s) and Ann Pelo (Early Childhood consultant writing in 2013) and my own, I’ve written an analysis of play in natural environments in the wonderful book Learning to Learn in Nature (Sightlines Initiative 2014: 235-245). I’m exploring how these natural play drives can work to construct an ‘ecological identity’ in young children (the chapter is called Ecological Identity: values, principles and practice) and am deeply interested in how we can support this profound attachment for life. Incidentally, ‘change perspective’ is one of these principles. Jan


Juliet Robertson January 26, 2016 at 17:28

Thanks for your thoughts Jan and also for directing us all to the Sightlines book – I haven’t yet read this but it sounds worthwhile. To help with ecological identity within a community framework it is worth reading and reflecting on Jeannette Armstrong’s paper which describes the process of Enow’kin.


thisdayilove January 30, 2016 at 15:54

I will certainly have to have a look next time I watch the girls play. They certainly have a sense of adventure and imagination about them


Juliet Robertson February 2, 2016 at 06:56

All the best – it is fascinating to observe


Coombe Mill - Fiona January 31, 2016 at 19:42

I may not have read the book or been aware f tghe principles but I certainly endorce them, this is what exploring in nature is all about. Interestingly enough it carries on in children for a very long time, sometimes I fear my own children are too grown up for play and then I catch them having a sword fight with sticks or challenging each other to climb a tree, just so long as their friends are not aware! Younger children will play like this quite freely and its wonderful to watch. Thank you for sharing your findings on #CountryKids


Juliet Robertson February 2, 2016 at 06:57

I agree – I think this is about humans developing as humans!


Sarah Stockley (@kipperscurtains) February 1, 2016 at 19:05

I will have to check this out. We go exploring nature every weekend, hunting for unusual mushrooms, naming trees and leaves, looking for edible leaves etc. We also camp out regularly. I love this post. Sarah #countrykids


Juliet Robertson February 2, 2016 at 06:56

Thanks Sarah – it’s a nice frame of reference which can help us understand what may interest children outside.


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