What the research says:
- Children who play regularly in natural settings are sick less often. Mud, sand, water, leaves, sticks, pine cones and gum nuts can help to stimulate children’s immune system as well as their imaginations.
- Children who spend more time outside tend to be more physically active and less likely to be overweight.
- Children who play in natural settings are more resistant to stress; have lower incidence of behavioural disorders, anxiety and depression; and have a higher measure of self-worth.
- Children who play in natural settings play in more diverse, imaginative and creative ways, and show improved language and collaboration skills.
- Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other.
- Bullying behaviour is greatly reduced where children have access to diverse nature-based play environments.
- Symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder are reduced after contact with nature.
There appears to be a serious gap occurring in modern childhood, which is delaying emotional and social development. This has a lot to do with the changing nature of childhood today. The excess consumer-driven pressures on parents to buy toys and ‘stuff’ to make their children smart has, in part, invalidated the magic that is wired into children that leads them to find their own fun. Just because a product has ‘educational’ written on its packaging, does not mean that it has any more educational value than a basket of clothes pegs or a set of car keys to a young toddler!
So many parents tell me they are too busy to create opportunities for their children to play mindfully and deeply, especially outside in the natural world.
“Having sufficient time to play is important big blocks of time without being disturbed and made to hurry is important for children and adults. We need time to chill out, relax, to let our ideas flow, have conversations with real or imaginary friends, to test our ideas and theories and replay, retest and rethink them.” – Neville Dwyer, Adventurous Play: Developing a culture of risky play documentary (Early Childhood Australia)
Play is a much underrated but incredibly vital part of children’s development. Put simply ‘play grows the brain’. As Hara Estroff Marano highlighted in her book, A Nation of Wimps (2008):
“Play fosters maturation of the very centres of the brain that allows kids to exert control over retention, emotions and to control behaviour. This is a very subtle trick that nature plays – it uses something that is not goal directed to create the mental machinery for being goal directed.”
The principal of one of the schools that have introduced two nature play areas one for K-2 and one for Years 3 and above – has found students playground behaviour has improved noticeably with students playing together more, cooperating in their play, being more engaged in their play, taking more risks and being calmer in classrooms. This physical activity actually improves self-regulation and concentration and so learning is improving. Bullying and truancy has decreased and students are much more enthusiastic to get to school on time! Another great gift that has happened is that parents and teachers have worked together positively to create these playgrounds and so school culture has also become more cohesive and cooperative.
We should always keep in mind that playgrounds are for children and children become massively engaged in nature-based playgrounds compared to those playgrounds designed by adults. It stands to reason why we need more of them and less of those brightly coloured adult-designed fantastic plastic modern playgrounds.
Play boosts brain power
High-quality play experiences definitely contribute to better cognitive development in children and they promote problem-solving, creativity, initiative and can increase children’s ability to concentrate. What is most exciting about nature-based playgrounds is that every time a child visits the playground s/he can interact and play in a completely different way to how they played previously. One of the key benefits of natural playgrounds is that they tend to assist with development of better gross motor skills like climbing. Anything that counteracts the increasing passivity of today’s children has to be a winner.
The brain needs movement to grow brain power.
The key characteristics of a natural playground are:
- the use of natural products like sand, water, logs and rocks
- differing heights and levels of the ground – kids love hills
- they allow children the opportunity to investigate and explore freely
- there is no fixed purpose to achieve
- some are hidden areas behind shrubs or small barriers
- bridges or walkways that take children from one place to another
- tunnels – kids love tunnels
- waterways – these are purely magical to children, not just to look at but to interact with
- opportunities for children to climb and to swing with their body weight
- spaces to run freely
- the ability to move things around
- no pressure to keep things neat and tidy
- a suspension of time constraints.
Claire Warden is one of the world’s leading advocates for nature play for children. She is passionate about the benefits of children being immersed in nature and through her visits to Australia she has helped promote the need for outdoor play especially in early years’ centres.
In Australia bush kindergartens are beginning to appear and these wonderful centres are giving young children the opportunity to massively engage in the natural world and to discover the scientist within them.
There are more and more schools across Australia that are interacting with the real world with their curriculum. Bold Park Community School in Perth is one such school that uses the nearby lake as a form of classroom. Their whole school curriculum is woven closely with the natural world and real experiences. Massive immersion in the natural world in childhood not only allows children to grow healthy on all levels it allows them to develop a respectful consciousness around the environment and their place in it.
I am also sure that the return to nature-based playgrounds will enhance children’s sense of belonging in our world in a deep and profound way. Mental illness has a core layer of separation, and spiritual intelligence can be nurtured by a strong connection to Nature. To create a sustainable world where all individuals value and take care of our natural resources, we need to firstly have a relationship to nature and the real world ourselves. This return to nature-based play, when coupled with initiatives like school garden projects, will create a generation of children with healthier minds, bodies, hearts and souls.