Why Natural Play Environments Are So Crucial For Children

‘To grow up healthy, children need to sit less and play more’ (World Health Organisation)

This is a view shared by researchers, education experts and parents all over the world as our society becomes increasingly digitised and communication and entertainment comes from sedentary interaction with a screen.

But experts also agree that not all play is equal.

Natural play environments are crucial

We need to replace our children’s screen time with green time.

Imagine an outdoor playground which features trees, shrubs, logs, stones, sand, seed pods and other elements of the natural world.  There are so many opportunities to see, feel and smell different things – and as the natural environment is always changing (leaves drop in winter, sand turns to mud when wet, flowers become seed pods), it offers up a never-ending kaleidoscope of experiences.  Birds, insects and other wildlife are an added attraction.

But natural play environments offer far more than just exciting experiences.

Natural play environments support children’s healthy growth and development by providing a diverse range of opportunities for them to develop important life skills.  A child interacts with the natural environment using all of their senses, leading to improved outcomes in many different areas including physical, cognitive, emotional and social development.

‘In an increasingly sedentary world, unstructured, active, outdoor play (nature play) is an essential building block of physical, social, and emotional health, and the primary way through which children develop the skills, confidences, and competencies that support being active and connected for life.  It is also an important way children explore culture and relationships and develop a connection to place/nature/country’. (NaturePlayWA)

Benefits of using natural resources in children’s play

Play-based learning is widely accepted as the ideal way for young children to explore, discover and make sense of the world around them and of their place in it.  For example, learning through play is the core of the Reggio Emilia approach which has child-directed creativity, exploration and understanding as its key focus.

And when play takes place in environments which have an abundance of natural resources, it leads to numerous benefits. 

These environments can be indoors as well as outdoors, as long as they include natural features.  There are many ways that educators and parents can do this, such as having pot plants and tubs for growing plants indoors and providing loose parts and materials for imaginative play such as small branches, gum nuts, seed pods, pinecones, leaves, pebbles and bark.

Natural play environments enable diverse experiences for:

  • Creative expression
  • Sensory exploration and stimulation
  • Physical activity
  • Social interaction
  • Environmental exploration, awareness and appreciation
  • Learning about responsibility

Children use all their senses when they play in natural environments and with loose parts which come from nature.  The complex shapes, colours, textures, smells and sounds found in nature provide infinite opportunities for children to explore, discover and create. 

On their own or with others, young children will pick up items, manoeuvre them around, construct and deconstruct things, climb on or up logs and trees, balance on tree stumps – all the while improving their fine and gross motor skills and their hand-eye co-ordination. 

They can strengthen their cognitive skills including numeracy and problem-solving by sorting these loose parts, counting them and working out how to piece them together or why they exist in the first place.

Nature-based environments are wonderful for supporting their natural creativity, curiosity and inventiveness.  A fallen log could become a pirate ship.  Gum nuts could be money.  Bark, sand and leaves could be ingredients for baking a cake. 

When children play together, they develop communication and language skills as well as crucial social and emotional skills.  They learn about negotiation, sharing, collaboration, responsibility and empathy – and with careful guidance and encouragement from the adults around them, children can start to develop a respect for the natural environment and sustainability.

A brief summary of the benefits of natural play environments

An extensive body of research tells us that open-ended nature play provides multiple benefits for children.  These include the development of their:

  • Fine and gross motor skills
  • Social and emotional skills
  • Communication skills including oral language
  • Intellectual skills including numeracy, problem-solving and scientific exploration
  • Sensory awareness

Nature play also provides children with a sense of freedom to explore and discover and to take safe risks.  It supports their mental health and overall wellbeing and it builds their self-confidence and sense of self and place.

Physically opening the door and enabling our children to connect with nature will open the door metaphorically to healthier, happier and more engaged lives as they grow older.

You can find out more in our other article called "Why Outdoor Education Matters In Early Childhood". We would love to chat more with you about this so why not book a tour of one of our Evoke Early Learning childcare centres in Clayton or Albert Park.

Author Bio

Tracey Davey - Operations Manager Evoke Early Learning

Tracey is a passionate and talented leader at Evoke Early Learning who ensures that relationships, projects, systems and processes are designed, implemented and evaluated to support the efficient operational delivery of the service. Tracey coordinates and leads working groups in all activities necessary for the successful development, implementation, and completion of special projects. Tracey has a Master of Education in Educational Leadership, as well as dual VIT registration as an Early Childhood Teacher and Primary Teacher. She is also a VIT Trained Mentor Teacher.

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