When I ask people what their fondest play memories were from their childhood, often it’s some type of play in nature.
Memories of hut building, mud pies, tree climbing and dams across the stream were some of my favourites and seem to be common themes for many I speak with.
As a child I didn’t realise how important that time was for my development or my wellbeing. But nature has been a place I have been able to rely on in so many ways.
The benefits of nature play are well documented but what is nature play and how is it different to outdoor play?
NATURE PLAY AND OUTDOOR PLAY
Nature play is where children engage in unstructured play outdoors using the natural elements that exist there e.g. logs, trees, leaves, sticks and stones, rather than man-made resources.
Children lead their own play, choose how they want to play and what they want to play with. It’s full of imagination, curiosity, and creativity.
Outdoor play and nature play both occur outside, the difference is that outdoor play can incorporate play equipment and man-made play toys and objects.
WHY IS NATURE PLAY SO IMPORTANT?
For previous generations playing outdoors and in nature was often an everyday occurrence. Children were sent outside to play, neighbourhoods were overrun with children and grazed knees were a rite of passage.
Over the last few decades there have been many changes in the way children play and the amount of time they spend outdoors and in nature.
Some of the reasons for these changes include:
- Urbanisation – more people living in cities, less vacant sites in neighbourhoods.
- Home life – both parents working, single parent families, a feeling of less safe neighbourhoods, not knowing neighbours and overscheduling of children’s time.
- Technology – huge advances in the last two decades including smart phones and the internet.
- Media – more information, including fear-driven content.
Individually these things aren’t good or bad, it’s just how the world has changed. What we can recognise though, is they are contributing factors to less play outside.
Nature play helps to provide an environment for a child to develop in so many domains. It supports physical health, socioemotional development, development of all the senses, and overall wellbeing and mental health.
Our bodies need to move and that appears to be one of the biggest changes with screen time replacing green time.
In fact, a study by Scott Duncan and Charlotte Jellyman at AUT, undertaken in 2015 surveying over 2000 parents, found that over 80% of children were in front of a screen for over two hours per day, and that increased to 88% on weekends.
So, if children are sitting for an extra two hours each day, 14 hours each week, that is time not moving. Time not growing their brains. Time not developing their physical body. Time not engaging in social situations and developing their emotional self. Time not strengthening neural pathways in their brain.
To create strong pathways in our brains, children need a lot of repetition and a variety of experiences to consolidate. Play is one of the most advanced ways nature has created to grow and develop amazing brains.
WHAT ARE THE BENEFITS OF NATURE PLAY?
We know that play in general is very important, and movement is a key part of this, but what are the benefits of nature play?
Nature not only heals our children, but it can build confidence, emotional resilience and is beneficial for their overall wellbeing.
- When children have regular time in the outdoors, including forests, parks, and playgrounds, they have opportunities to release stress, play vigorously, and directly explore nature, which in turn provides physical and psychological benefits. 1-3
- For children, greenspaces are an important environmental influence on physical activity and emotional wellbeing.4
Social emotional skills
- An Australian study found that the kids who spent the most time outdoors were, on average, more cooperative. They were also more socially expressive – better able to verbalise their desires and enter into play with others. By contrast, time spent playing video games was unrelated to social skills.5
- In a recent study of preschoolers, researchers found that nature-connected kids were better behaved. They were less likely to suffer from emotional difficulties, and more likely to show kindness toward others.6
- Improves social relations. Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the outdoors.7
Sensory rich experiences
- In play experiences, combining the sense of touch with the senses of vision, hearing, taste and smell helps build cognitive skills.8
- Children become more creative simply by playing. They also build their linguistic, cognitive, visual spatial, social and emotional skills.9-13
Mental health and overall wellbeing
- Evidence suggests that not only are people dependent on the natural environment for material needs such as food and water, but also that the natural environment is equally essential for fulfilling psychological, spiritual, and emotional needs.14 Therefore, it seems crucial that mental health promotion should acknowledge the importance of ensuring access to natural environments and protecting these areas for our wellbeing.
- In nature there is a great advantage of germs for your child’s developing immune system. Microbial exposure and increased microbial burden is beneficial for wellness.15
- Reduced stress. Green plants and vistas reduce stress among highly stressed children. Locations with a greater number of plants, greener views, and access to natural play areas show more significant results.16
- Nature supports multiple development domains. Nature is important to children’s development in every major way—intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically.17
Risk management skills
- The opportunity for risk taking improves children’s competencies in risk management and risk perception. In addition, social skills may be enhanced through opportunities for collaboration with older peers, as children collectively decide and learn how to manage risk.18
- Risky play helps children to learn to manage their own safety and move around comfortably.19
- Engagement in risky play was positively associated with children’s well-being, involvement and physical activity. The findings in this study suggest that one way to support children’s everyday experiences and positive outcomes for children in ECEC is to provide children with opportunities for risky play. Restrictions on children’s play behaviours following safety concerns must be balanced against the joy and possible future benefits of thrilling play experiences for children.20
Improved academic performance including oral language, communication, decision making and negotiation skills
- Access to play improves classroom behaviour and academic and enhances children’s readiness to learn, their learning behaviours and their ability to problem solve. 21,22
- Loose parts play research has linked physical activity not only to physical health but also to mental well-being and academic achievement23,24
Environment, culture, and nature connection
- Creating a play experience outside on a regular basis will not only educate our children about where their curiosity may take them, it also feeds a deeper connection to our natural environment. Instilling these connections in this new generation is of most importance to our kaitiakitanga and environmental sustainability.25
- Wilson (2012) outlines how the early childhood years are fundamental in developing “environmental attitudes and a commitment to caring for the Earth” (p. 87). The natural world can give children instant responses to their curiosity through all their senses as they touch, taste, smell, see and hear what is going on around them. Such connections tend to foster an ethic of care for the natural environment and the life systems within it.26 Positive experiences in nature can support children to develop the understanding that humans are interconnected with the earth and its life supporting systems, and that all humans have a responsibility to ensure its survival for future generations.27
- Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health. Today, kids are aware of the global threats to the environment, but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.28
- Research has shown that empathy with and love of nature grows out of children’s regular contact with the natural world. Hands-on, informal, self-initiated exploration and discovery in local, familiar environments are often described as the best ways to engage and inspire children and cultivate a sense of wonder. These frequent, unstructured experiences in nature are the most common influence on the development of lifelong conservation values.29
- People who report positive experiences with nature are more likely to behave in ways that protect the environment, and we can see the effect in children as well as adults – kids who spend more time in nature express more appreciation for wildlife, and more support for conservation.30
Creativity and problem solving
- Nature supports creativity and problem solving. Studies of children in schoolyards found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green areas. They also play more cooperatively in the natural environment.31 Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem solving and intellectual development.32
- Play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control centre responsible for solving problems and making plans and regulating emotions.33
- “Schemas link directly to how the young brain develops and grows. They are a vitally important element in young children’s learning and development. Children need opportunities to practice repeatedly what they know and can do, so what is known becomes better known.”34
- Loose parts facilitate communication and negotiation skills when added to an outdoor space.35,36 Benefits of playing with loose parts include increasing levels of creative and imaginative play, children play co-operatively and socialise more, and children are physically more active.37
When we know the benefits of nature play then we also know that we must find ways to provide more opportunities for nature play in the lives of our children or the children we teach.
This might mean thinking outside the box. This might be doing things differently. The risk of not doing more is greater than the bumps and bruises that children get from outdoor play.
1. Frost, 2010. 2. Jacobi-Vessels, 2013. 3. Louv, 2005. 4. Ward, Duncan, Jarden, Stewart, 2016. 5. Hinkley et al 2018. http://parentingscience.com/benefits-of-outdoor-play/. 6. Sobko et al 2018. http://parentingscience.com/benefits-of-outdoor-play/. 7. Burdette and Whitaker, 2005. 8. Kittie Butcher, Michigan State University Extension, and Janet Pletcher, Lansing Community College – December 15, 2016. https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/cognitive_development_and_sensory_play. 9. Falkenberg T, Mohammed AK, Henriksson B, Persson H, Winblad B, Lindefors N. Increased expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor mRNA in rat hippocampus is associated with improved spatial memory and enriched environment. Neuroscience Letters. April 1992:153-156. doi:10.1016/0304-3940(92)90494-r. 10. Diamond M. Response of the brain to enrichment. An Acad Bras Cienc. 2001;73(2):211-220. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11404783. 11. Howard-Jones P, Taylor J, Sutton L. The Effect of Play on the Creativity of Young Children During Subsequent Activity. Early Child Development and Care. August 2002:323-328. doi:10.1080/03004430212722. 12. Elardo R, Bradley R, Caldwell BM. The Relation of Infants’ Home Environments to Mental Test Performance from Six to Thirty-Six Months: A Longitudinal Analysis. Child Development. March 1975:71. doi:10.2307/1128835. 13. Pellegrini AD. The relationship between kindergartners’ play and achievement in prereading, language, and writing. Psychol Schs. October 1980:530-535. 14. Maller, Townsend, Pryor, Brown & St Leger, 2006. 15. Gilbert, J. Knight, R. 2017. 16. Wells and Evans, 2003. 17. Kellert, 2005. 18. Bundy et al, 2009. 19. Knight, 2009. 20. Sando, O.J., Kleppe, R. & Sandseter, E.B.H. Risky Play and Children’s Well-Being, Involvement and Physical Activity. Child Ind Res 2021. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12187-021-09804-5. 21. Pellegrini and Smith, 1998. 22. Ginsburg, 2007. 23. Ahn & Fedewa, 2011. 24. Singh, 2012. 25. Ministry of Education, 2017. 26. Phenice and Griffore, 2003. 27. Chawla, 2007. 28. Louv, 2005. 29. DOC, 2011. 30. Soga et al 2016. Zhang et al 2014. http://parentingscience.com/benefits-of-outdoor-play/. 31. Bell and Dyment, 2006. 32. Kellert, 2005. 33. Pellis, Pellis and Himmler, 2014. 34. Louis, 2013. 35. Maxwell, Mitchell and Louis, 2013. 36. Evans, 2008. 37. Hyndman, Benson, Ullah and Telford, 2014.