Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the Traditional Owners and Custodians of the land on which we live, work, learn, and play, and pay my respects to Elders past, present, and emerging.
What is nature play?
Nature play is exactly what it sounds like – playing in nature! Nature play environments can be anything with natural elements such as plants, rocks, mud, sand, gardens, forests and ponds or water.
Why nature play?
There are so many benefits for children when they engage in nature-based play such as developing resilience through the challenges, having a deep connection to the environment, and providing them with a freedom to experience and learn about the world around them. It is also the most ultimate sensory experience for them, as they about learn different textures, climb to new heights, see new colours, and smell new smells in the garden!
An important part of nature-based play is the element of unstructured play – meaning the kids get to decide how, when, and what they play. This is a HUGE part of their childhood development and overall health as unstructured play allows our kids to problem solve, create friendships, use their imagination, and promotes creativity.
Structured vs Unstructured play
Natural play spaces are very different from the outdoor playgrounds you see in public space, and in schools. These playground spaces are referred to as Kit-Fenced-Carpet playgrounds or KFC (not the fast food). Natural spaces allow for unstructured play compared to KFC playgrounds. For e.g., the slide you see in a public park can only be used as a slide, there’s only one purpose for play, and adults often prevent children from exploring the slide in different ways such as climbing, sitting, jumping. Whereas a boulder or collection of rocks can be used for many different purposes in play. They can be used for jumping off, sitting, scaling, making clay using water etc.
What happens when we don’t have enough green in our lives?
It’s important not to downplay the role nature has in our lives. We may not notice or may take for granted the benefits nature has on our own well-being. In fact, researchers have shown that separation from nature can negatively impact our wellbeing and the thinking (cognitive) and feeling (emotional) development of our children. This can then lead into a cycle of people not having the opportunity to interact with nature, therefore, more people are less likely to have an appreciation of nature. This can be problematic as it might mean less people are participating in environment conservation activities and therefore lead to further degradation of the natural spaces.
The new world of play
Unfortunately, as urban areas and populations increase rapidly all over the world, there are many concerns raised about children’s alienation from our natural world. Many children, especially those living in busy cities, have fewer chances to play and interact in nature due to the loss of natural environments. As more children are now growing up apartments, or bigger houses with no outdoor space, many children are missing out on the freedoms of nature play and critical developmental learning experiences. With this, there are now changes in children’s lifestyle, with more children spending time indoors and increasing sedentary activities.
Screen time vs Green time
The increase in screen time also plays a giant part in the fewer moments spent in nature play. With the future generation spending more hours engaged or even addicted to technology (tv, tablets, computers), they are spending less time being active in nature. This has been shown to have detrimental impacts on their overall health and wellbeing and has shown a disconnection from other peers and to the environment around them. Although this is an issues, it is important to not play the blame game, and to remember that our kids were born into this world apart of the ‘digital generation’. This is more relevant now than ever as with the past 2 years children’s play has been impacted by the pandemic crisis where all education and social activities had to be completed online. Along, with the pandemic, this has created further challenges to children accessing natural green spaces, with parents not having the time or resources to access natural environments easily and readily.
Increasing prevalence of sensory and motor delays in children
With an increase in the number of children living with a sensory and/or motor delay, nature play can act as a path to improving these difficulties. Due to the decreased time spent in nature play children aren’t able to develop their vestibular system or get enough sensory input required for physical development. With more children having trouble with decreased attention spans, endurance, strength, self-regulation, and increased anxiety, nature play can provide the opportunities to relax, create, build strength, and develop relationships with others.
The benefits of nature-based play-
Physical Wellbeing: Nature-based play has shown to be beneficial to children’s motor development with specifically surrounding balance and coordination, flexibility, and body awareness (clumsiness). It has also been noted that outdoor nature-play has a massive part in children’s physical activity, and therefore helps our kids stay fit and active! This is such an important part of life as childhood obesity is on the rise with increased sedentary lifestyle changes and the challenges with the accessibility of fresh food due to cheaper and more accessible fast food options.
Stress and anxiety are major challenges today in young people particularly following the impacts of the pandemic. Taking children outdoors to play in nature is a great way to improve their mental well-being. There is also growing research suggesting the positive impacts that nature play has on children living with ADHD, alcohol foetal syndrome, or those who have gone through childhood trauma. Nature play has a therapeutic benefit for children to deal with negative experiences to process emotions and overcome difficult situations.
Cognitive (thinking) development: Nature-based play is beneficial to children’s cognitive development and allows for a variation of play such as functional, constructive, exploratory, dramatic, and imaginative. Imagination, creativity, and dramatic play are important aspects of child development as they help children develop a sense of the world around them by allowing them to develop complex thinking skills, emotional intelligence and social skills.
Author: Serena Rudd BOccThy
Paediatric Occupational Therapist
Copyright Stepping Stones Therapy for Children 2022
Dankiw, K., Tsiros, M., Baldock, K., & Kumar, S. (2020). The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review. PLOS ONE, 15(2), e0229006. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229006
Herrington, S., & Brussoni, M. (2015). Beyond Physical Activity: The Importance of Play and Nature-Based Play Spaces for Children’s Health and Development. Current Obesity Reports, 4(4), 477-483. https://doi.org/10.1007/s13679-015-0179-2
Hosaka, T., Numata, S., & Sugimoto, K. (2018). Research Note: Relationship between childhood nature play and adulthood participation in nature-based recreation among urban residents in Tokyo area. Landscape And Urban Planning, 180, 1-4. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2018.08.002