WHAT IS NATURE PLAY

You may have heard this term being used increasingly frequently of late but perhaps are not entirely sure what it means.

I think we all acknowledge that children today have fewer freedoms and less time outdoors than previous generations. Does this matter? I guess to answer this we first have to consider what they are doing with that time instead.

First up children are BUSY! For many kids their days start early and finish late with the family rushing them from commitment to commitment. Now many of these may be fun activities and it’s likely that the children enjoy doing them but they are usually adult-devised and led. That is, whether it be a sport or play centre, an adult has set the rules, set out the equipment and generally prescribed the way the children will interact with minimal opportunity for them to direct their own play.

A landmark clinical report published in 2007 by the leading professional association of over 67,000 children’s doctors in the US, the American Academy of Pediatrics, strongly advocated for the importance of play and reported that “Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts, and to learn self-advocacy skills.”

Another report found that, “the more time that children spent in less-structured activities [such as free play, spending time with family and friends, sightseeing and visiting zoos and museums], the better their self-directed executive functioning. The opposite was true of structured activities [like soccer practice, piano lessons, tutoring, and homework], which predicted poorer self-directed executive functioning.”

And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics 2018 clinical report, “children pay more attention to class lessons after free play at recess than they do after physical education programs, which are more structured.” Interesting….

If you’d like to delve further into the importance of play for children then I highly recommend getting a copy of “Let the children Play” by the wonderful Pasi Sahlberg. All three reports above were sourced from his book.

OK so self directed play is important, what about nature? So second up, children are not outdoors as much. Their aforementioned limited free time is often spent in a “safe” and therefore confined space which generally means they are in front of some sort of screen. Now there are many points of view on whether devices are good or bad but I think all would agree that the most important thing is that children are given options that would include access to time outside.

How much did we miss it when we couldn’t get outdoors when we wanted to during lockdown? Weren’t we all searching for a little patch of green we could get into that was ideally away from the throngs of others trying to do the same? It’s like we all instinctively knew we needed its calming influence. 

This is even more so the case for children who are still learning how to manage their emotions and deal with life and all the new situations and experiences they are exposed to including the stressful ones. We can’t pretend they don’t exist or indefinitely shield children from difficult and stressful situations. What on earth will they be making of the COVID protocols they now live with, the conversations they overhear and the fear that has permeated their daily lives. They need to have the tools to deal with what’s thrown their way and many of the skills they need for this can be developed through nature play.

Yep, nothing too tricky or fancy required here, just let our kids get outdoors and play. 

    There is no shortage of research that links active outdoor play in nature and children’s improved health and well-being, yet an Australian national study found that one in 20 children does not leave home to play (Laird, McFarland−Piazza & Allen, 2014). It is also evident that the benefits of active outdoor activities are not accessed by all Australian children equally and their health is negatively impacted as a result. The NSW Health of Children and Young People Report (2014) states one in four children is overweight or obese and more than 70% of children do not participate in adequate daily physical activity.*

    Thankfully there is a growing movement of those seeking out and delivering nature play programs. The concept is not new, first starting in Denmark in the 1950s, generations of children have since reaped the benefits in the Northern Hemisphere of what are termed Forest Kindergartens. Amazingly, given our generally temperate climate and ready access to outdoor space, Australia has lagged behind the rest of the world in appreciating the importance of our children spending time in nature. 

    One benefit of this is that we are able to draw on a rich diversity of research and information from overseas when creating our own uniquely Australian response. And there is a rapdily growing number of Australian resources also now available.

    Why nature? The research supporting its use on multiple levels is wide ranging and global. Here is a summary of some of the research compiled by Clare Warden in her book “Nature Kindergartens and Forest Schools”, 2012:

      • Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and ability, and they are sick less often (Grahn, et al., 1997) (Fjortoft & Sageie, 2001).
      • When children play in natural environments their play is more diverse, with imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills (Moore & Wong, 1997) (Taylor, et al., 1998) (Fjortoft, 2000).
      • Exposure to natural environments improves children’s cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills (Pyle, 2002).
      • Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress and benefit treatment of numerous health conditions (Kahn, 1999).
      • Nature buffers the impact of life’s stresses on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits (Wells & Evans, 2003).
      • Children with Attention Deficit Disorder are positively affected by the calmness of nature playscape (Taylor et al., 2001).
      • An affinity to and love of nature, along with a positive environmental ethic, grow out of regular contact with and play in the natural world during early childhood. (Chawla, 1998) (Sobel 1996, 2002, 2004) (Wilson, 1997) (Moore and Cosco, 2000) (Kals et al., 1999, 2003).
      • Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder (Cobb, 1977) (Louv, 1991).
      • Wonder is an important motivator for life-long learning (Wilson, 1997).
      • Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other (Moore, 1986).
      • Natural environments stimulate social interaction between children (Moore, 1986) (Bixler et al., 2002).

    Bush Kindy, Wild Kindy, Nature Kindy, call it what you will, they all have the same central premise and that is – let our children play in nature.

    *Nature Play for New South Wales – Insights and Recommendations