Nature Play: more time in trees, less time on screens

Why is encouraging children to play freely, outdoors in nature so beneficial to their general health, wellbeing and learning outcomes?

Nature Play is a concept to encourage children to spend more time playing outdoors using their imaginations in a natural setting. It inspires open-ended possibilities for boosting fitness, motor skills, and learning, as well as social and emotional development in children. This, in turn, can lead to improvements in cognitive and learning outcomes.

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In 2005, American journalist Richard Louv coined the term ‘nature-deficit disorder’ to describe the effect on children as they move indoors and lose their connection to the natural world. By spending less time in trees and more time on screens, children were experiencing myriad problems, from obesity and depression to attention disorders. With worldwide support for his claims, he is often credited with helping to inspire the nature play movement and bringing children back outside.

At its most basic, nature play is simply unstructured and child-led time spent outdoors in nature. Screens, plastic blocks and toys are replaced with mud, branches and water. Inactivity, repetition and solitude are replaced with spontaneity, discovery and risk-taking.

Elements of risk are important in natural play areas, whether that comes from the effects of gravity, rough edges, vegetation or loose materials. Risk is where children can challenge themselves both physically and emotionally, by pushing boundaries, challenging themselves and overcoming fear.

Anything from the natural world can be used when creating a nature play space. Elements can be fixed, such as large boulders, water play taps and streams, vegetation and heavy logs, or loose, such as leafy branches, rocks and dirt. By limiting the direction given to children and simply exposing them to natural materials, they will learn to explore, decide, collaborate, design and manipulate the materials in their own creative ways.

Nature Play
Image supplied by Timber Creations

Some non-natural elements may be beneficial and facilitate further exploration and utilisation of the natural elements – these include buckets, spades and other digging tools, rope or chain and old kitchen pots and utensils. Heavy-duty plastic or metal sifters and strainers, funnels and tubing can also make wonderful additions to mud kitchens and water play.

Help is available for schools wishing to create a nature playground, from assisting with design work all the way to construction, planning and maintenance.

Some companies can assist with designing and building traditional playground equipment such as swings, seesaws, cubbies and forts, but with reclaimed, sustainable and predominantly natural elements. Others can help design a more freestyle and unstructured nature play area, by helping you understand and utilise the natural elements already in your local area.

When designing a nature play area, it’s important to start with your goal – what are you aiming for? Who will use your playground, and what do they want to get out of it? All your subsequent decisions will come back to this, from the elements you include, to the level of acceptable risk and the plants you incorporate.

If you choose to create your own outdoor play space using only natural and recycled materials, this opens up many opportunities to create a sustainable play environment that simultaneously helps the community find new uses for unwanted items, rather than sending them to landfill.

Some ideas to consider are painting old car and truck tires and using them for building, stacking, rolling and water play; plastic or wooden crates and pallets can be used for building, stacking, forts, transporting materials, making bridges and ‘furniture’; limestone blocks from walls and garden beds can be used for structures, stages, foundations and seating.

Nature play elements can be linked to aspects of the primary curriculum from Pre-Primary all the way through to Year 6, including science, geography, history, maths and English, and general capabilities such as critical and creative thinking, intercultural understanding, and personal and social capabilities.

Why should you include nature play in your students’ day? School News gained some industry insight to find out more.

Madelyn from Timber Creations said nature play provides an important contrast to the increasingly controlled environments of the modern world.

“Nature play is important because it provides a deep insight into the beauty and chaos of life, as well as the cyclical nature of growth and decay.

“The key to nature play is that the play space changes each day, so the play changes every day – there is more to discover and explore than a piece of plastic that has been designed to be unaffected by the environment.”

“Recently, there has been a trend toward play environments that encourage children to take risks. Risky play helps children learn to balance trying something that may result in them falling from a safe height, or failing in some way before they learn how to do what they are trying to do. Nature play is the best for this, as nature provides natural variation such as uneven textures and different sized gaps that challenge children in multiple ways and encourage them to extend themselves.

“Children have a natural inclination to explore the world around them, and nature play is at its best when children are left to their own devices to make up their own games and activities in free play. Sometimes they need a little push to get more comfortable if they haven’t had much opportunity with natural play. Some great options are workbenches and mud kitchens, obstacle courses with natural materials, sandpits and digging patches with loose parts play. Children who are more comfortable can be extended with more non-prescriptive play such as logs, boulders and natural landscapes.”

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and the author of "Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World", now available in all good bookstores.

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