Into the outdoors: Benefits of nature play

A world-first review into the effects of nature play on children’s health reveals positive connections between nature-inspired play spaces and children’s progress. IEU journalist Mykeala Campanini explores this exciting new research.

A groundbreaking review, “The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development”, which analyses 16 studies from around the world, was conducted by Kylie Dankiw, Margarita Tsiros, Katherine Baldock and Saravana Kumar at the University of South Australia. The researchers explored the impacts of nature play on the health and development of children aged 2 to 12 years.

They found that exposure to nature play had consistently positive impacts on children’s physical activity outcomes and cognitive behaviour, with evidence showing nature play also improves children’s complex thinking skills, social skills and creativity.

There is increased global concern regarding the physical wellbeing of young children after recent research indicated 41 million children around the world are considered obese, a figure that has steadily increased since 1990.

The findings of this review offer a solution in the form of nature play to improving children’s mental and physical health and combating the childhood obesity crisis.

What is nature play?

Researcher Kylie Dankiw, who led the review, described nature play as simply playing freely with, and in, nature.

“One of the seminal findings of our research was that across the literature, nature play was defined in many ways,” Dankiw said. “We think this could be explained due to where the studies were conducted, which included Europe, the United Kingdom, the United States and Australia.

“Despite this, there were some consistent characteristics and elements used to describe nature play spaces, such as free play and interacting with natural elements such as trees, sand, water and vegetation.

“While the concept of engaging with nature and free play is not new, the move towards redeveloping children’s play spaces from traditional playgrounds into more nature-based play spaces, particularly in early childhood education centres and schools, is relatively recent.”

The review found that nature play improved children’s levels of physical activity, health-related fitness, motorskills, learning and social and emotional development.

Why mud pies matter

The findings of the new research support the development of innovative nature play spaces in early childhood education centres.

“It’s about making mud pies, creating stick forts, having an outdoor adventure and getting a little dirty,” Dankiw said.

“In recent years, nature play has become more popular in the education environment, with many early childhood education centres incorporating natural elements, such as trees, plants and rocks.

“But as they transition from the traditional plastic playground to novel, nature-based play spaces, they are also looking for empirical evidence that supports these investments.

“Our research involved first rigorously, transparently and systematically reviewing the body of work on nature play and showing the impact it has on children’s development.

“The review found that nature play improved children’s levels of physical activity, health-related fitness, motor skills, learning and social and emotional development.

“It showed that nature play may deliver improvements in cognitive and learning outcomes, including children’s levels of attention and concentration, punctuality, settling in class, constructive play, social play as well as imaginative and functional play.

“Nature play also positively impacted children’s levels of physical activity and health-related fitness, including fine motor skills relating to improved levels of balance and flexibility.

“The importance of physical activity to reduce obesity risks has been well documented in the literature, particularly in childhood, where physical activity patterns in the early years have been known to track strongly into physical activity patterns later in life.”

Obstacles in the way

The research indicates that, despite its benefits, access to nature play is diminishing among young children.

There is a variety of contributing factors, such as space, safety, time and competing interests that promote an inactive lifestyle in which play is restricted to electronic devices.

“Nature play activities incorporate things children love to do but, unfortunately, as society has become more sedentary, risk-averse and time-poor, fewer children have these opportunities,” Dankiw said.

“Currently there is no universal definition of nature play nor consistent descriptions of nature play environments. This can pose an obstacle for teachers to implement or create nature play spaces when it is unclear what actually constitutes a nature play environment.

“One of the recommendations from our current research is for a better universal definition of nature play.

“By doing so, future nature play spaces can share commonalities in their development and implementation, which will assist consistent critical evaluations in building the evidence base for nature play.”

Open to everyone

Dankiw emphasises that current research is focused on unstructured free play within nature rather than structured outdoor education.

“The importance of child-led play is clear and so teachers, where and when possible, should allow children to go outside and explore the outdoor environment, either on school grounds, or take an excursion to the local creek or park, where they are bound to find trees, plants or other natural materials,” she said.

“Let the kids take the lead and they may find natural materials that interest them. It might be some colourful leaves, flowers, sticks, bark or, if they look even closer, some insects.

“These materials can then be used at the site or in the classroom as part of everyday activities.”

Recognising the broad range of benefits children gain from nature play is a first step.

“But knowing alone is not enough,” Dankiw said. “We must endeavour to incorporate unstructured free play as part of everyday activities for children and let them take the lead.”

Photo above courtesy of Kylie Dankiw