Interview – Jean Epstein: Playing outside & Exploring nature

Outdoor activities are important and promote children’s development. Jean Epstein, a renowned pedagogue for over 50 years, tells us more.

Jean Epstein

I have the pleasure of interviewing you today about your latest book: “Playing Outside – Exploring Nature – Why? How?”

First of all, how, or rather why, did you choose the subject and title of this book?

Several years ago, I participated in studies on the origins of violence among young people. We interviewed 1,500 young people over a period of four years and the observations led to the identification of eight distinct causes that were linked to a particular type of violence which were linked to a deficiency or a deficit. The non-acquisition of the notion of life and death was one cause identified. This notion of living is directly linked to the outdoor space and therefore to the importance for a child to play outside, and to explore nature.

Are there other pedagogues who advocate nature as a priority in the education of children?

There are many pedagogues for whom nature is central, and some are very famous. I am thinking in particular of Maria Montessori in Italy, or Rudolf Steiner in Austria. They both adopted the same tool in their pedagogy: the table of seasons. At each season, the children bring elements of nature on the table, and their games which were built with these elements, gave them an understanding of the relationship with nature, with time and seasons. It was already an ecological approach where, from childhood onwards, the children learned and understood that you can’t eat just anything at any time, or to put it differently: that you can’t eat strawberries in winter!

I would also like to mention Célestin Freinet in Saint-Paul-de-Vence. He managed a class of children, and every morning they went to the forest or to gardens, and they experienced emotions, feelings … and the class worked in the afternoon on all these data by transcribing them in a notebook and in literary exercises where, moreover, printing played a role in the newspaper they published.

And are there any pedagogues who are against this approach?

In a terrible paradox, two other movements are at work in educational circles and among some parents: hygienism and “zero risk”. While hygiene is important, hygienism taken to the extreme can lead to a fear of eating dirt, or getting dirty in an outdoor environment. Similarly, while risks need to be calculated in nature life, ‘zero risk’ can lead to fearful attitudes that prevent children from enjoying the environment nature offers.

In nature and outdoor play, can you explain to us what tools help children, in a playful way, to build the fundamental benchmarks? And what are these benchmarks?

As a psycho-sociologist, my aim is to carry out research that will then be put into practice in action. Neuroscientific research highlights two things.

1- A child’s development is early.

A child’s development starts very early, especially in the social-sensory development. Catherine Dolto explains to us, for example, that haptonomy can be practiced from the beginning of pregnancy.

2- Development is global.

The child learns to situate its body in space. In nature, for example, we listen to a bird singing in a tree. The question “Where is the bird?” is a phonospatial identification question because the sound allows the child to situate its body in space. When he has seen the bird, the child points to the bird with his finger to his friends? And through this virtual line, all the children see the bird.

Many children have problems with geometry and have difficulty fixing their bodies in space. At the age of 2 or 3, in a natural setting, children are doing geometry in space and can progress.

This notion of global development can also be illustrated by other work such as that of Professor Jacques Puisais who emphasises the link between taste and language. Children who taste different things, who experience a pleasure of the taste buds, have a taste for the spoken word, and vice versa.

And why do you remind us in your book of the importance of awakening the five senses?

The five senses are at the centre of all learning. I just mentioned the link between taste and language, but it’s still true with the different languages with their different auditory spectra and the different musics of all countries. A lot of music is language-centred. The song “La mer” by Charles Trenet is a good example of a text that fits the French language.

A baby hears much more ultrasound and infrasound than we do. Conversely, if the child hears music at an early age, he or she will benefit from a broader spectrum. This is particularly true of Eastern, Russian and Slavic music, which offers more highs and lows. These abilities will help children to learn foreign languages and give them a greater openness to different cultures.

As parents, how can we help children to use their senses in nature and play?

Célestin Freinet and Maria Montessori used to do “sound hunts” in nature to develop children’s ears. This is an activity that all parents can offer their children.

The sensory and relational world is in the living. We can play outside, i.e. play in nature, but also in a garden, a public garden, in a vegetable garden and … take care of it. Here again, it is the notion of life that is at stake, and the notion of project: the child does something now, for something that will only happen later.

Another example of an activity can be borrowed from the past. In nurseries, meals were prepared with the children, who learned to recognise the foods and how they could be combined and cooked. Some children were also taken to the market. The children learnt to know and recognise the different fish, vegetables, fruits … In these activities, it is important to comment to the child on what we see and discover.

Another activity is of course related to the pleasure of listening to music. In competitive sport such as cycling, the cyclist is not allowed to listen to music that he or she likes because it increases his or her well-being. In June 2015, the athletics federation banned listening to music in competition because music promotes the creation of endorphins and this is considered by the federation as doping.

Regardless of this example from the field of competition, let us invite our children to enjoy the pleasure of listening to music, which increases endorphins and their well-being. It is also worth noting that children who hear music are much less aggressive.

Although it is often mentioned that playing outside gives parents and educators extra work to do, as the children have to be dressed and shod, this time invested is a huge gain in terms of energy management and then serenity for the child and the adult.

Another activity is linked to one of the senses that is most unevenly distributed: that of orientation. In the forest, in nature, let’s invite the children to find the way, to remember where they have been.

Nature has all the ingredients a child needs!

A reminder also of what was done 20-30 years ago in Eastern Europe and Sweden. The colder it was, the more children went out. Well-covered, the children napped outside! This was a way of solving the problem of rhinopharyngitis suffered by children in heated and closed places.

Finally, one of the elements of life is that of animals. More and more, children have relationships with virtual animals. This trend is reinforced by hygienism, where animals can be stigmatised as carriers of disease. Let’s remember that in the past in the crèches, there were dogs and cats. Animals are part of nature and the cycle of life.

Many tests are done in crèches where children visit educational farms. There they also learn that ham is not an animal that lives in a slice in the supermarket and that fish is not just breaded: they learn about reality!