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Child-Directed Play and Learning

At TerraTime, we are a bit old-school when it comes to learning and we don’t think that’s a bad thing. Backed by research from child development experts, we provide an opportunity for children to experience childhood learning the way it was intended to be, play-based and child-directed.

While the specific outcomes may differ to some degree, several elements are key to all TerraTime outdoor experiences.

These include spontaneous play, cooperative effort, self-awareness, social skills, motor planning, problem-solving, sensory integration, creativity, curiosity, self-reliance, belonging, empathy, and increased knowledge and appreciation of the natural environment.

We provide an opportunity for children to experience childhood learning the way it was intended to be, play-based and child-directed.


Our outdoor classroom is rich in learning opportunities where children engage in activities they choose and are personally meaningful to them. As a result, children make conscious decisions for themselves and problem-solving through each step. It is a time for them to challenge their cognitive abilities and explore their interests.


Allowing child-directed play does not mean we turn our back on children or let them do whatever they want. Our team plays an important role in child-directed learning by setting up developmentally appropriate centers, selecting specific materials for children to use, and maintaining safe boundaries.


We know it is natural for adults to have predetermined ideas of what the outcome of a certain activity should be, and often feel the need to jump in and teach children the “right way” to do things. It takes practice and a lot of self-control for adults to get in the habit of stepping back and following a child’s lead. However, it is worth the effort when we see the magical process unfold.


Asking exploratory questions, such as “Why do you think that didn’t work?” or “What is another way to use this material?” is an important way to deepen children’s understanding of and curiosity about the world around them. In fact, research shows that children taught in a collaborative, playful context results in richer, more extensive learning than children taught in a didactic, adult-driven learning environment.

It takes practice and a lot of self-control for adults to get in the habit of stepping back and following a child’s lead. However, it is worth the effort when we see the magical process unfold.



What are some of the benefits of child-directed play and learning?

  1. It builds self-confidence. By exploring on their own, children realize there is much they can do for themselves.

  2. It encourages independence. Child-directed play allows children to experience independence in a safe, prepared environment.

  3. It stimulates the imagination. Children can’t help but be creative during child-directed play. By providing these opportunities, we are allowing children to take creative risks and explore their imagination.

  4. It teaches problem-solving. Figuring things out on their own is a challenge for many children. Allowing children to work with the resources available is a great way to build these skills.

  5. It allows children to learn at their own pace. With child-directed play, there is no timeline and no academic benchmarks to meet. Children have the opportunity to build on their own knowledge in ways that make sense to them.

  6. It cultivates internal motivation. Without adults defining the success of an activity, children are compelled to find innate joy in their play. They naturally challenge themselves to try new ideas and find their own personal delight in doing so.



What does this look like at TerraTime?


While daily themes are planned by our team of adults, our respect for a child’s interests and ability to guide themselves through their experiences is very important. It is magical when children can learn and grow through open-ended play and self-direction. Usually, the materials and the prompts provided find their way into a child’s play in ways we least expect it.


What does this mean for you as a parent?


First, you have the assurance that your child is experiencing high-quality, research-driven learning opportunities. Depending on your child’s needs, it is not uncommon to see growth in the first couple of days. We would love to hear about the changes you see in your child as a result of their time with us.


Supporting child-directed learning also means that your child may not bring home the same ‘product’ as other children. While all children will be offered the same opportunities, not all children will choose the same activity.

I encourage you to celebrate with your child over their choices, their creations, and their learning. To help with this, we will provide parents with a daily email containing an overview of our day, the theme, learning outcomes, and ideas for extending learning at home.



Did you know that we are a certified Nature Explore Classroom?


Certified Nature Explore Classrooms are dynamic, nature-based play and learning spaces. The Nature Explore Classroom Certification Program is a national initiative that recognizes schools and other organizations that have committed to providing outdoor classrooms and comprehensive programming to help children use the natural world as an integral part of learning.


You can check out our classroom by following this link: https://certified.natureexplore.org/terratime/













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