Nature Play in Early Years Education

Nature play – unstructured play outdoors – is vital to a healthy childhood. 

 

Importance of Nature in Everyday Life

For children, play is learning. There is no better space for kids to learn than the outdoors, and there is no better play resource than nature.

One of the best lessons children can be taught in their early years is to play outdoors. Children innately reap great benefits as they grow connection and appreciation of the natural environment. In the structured, busy and technologically-advanced world we live in, the role of outdoor play that we experienced as children is being forgotten.

Nature play is any activity that gets children active or thinking actively outdoors, with the end goal of building skills and ability to play without the need for parental or adult control. This can be in any setting, so long as it’s outdoors. It supports children being left to their own devices while caregivers supervise from a distance. Adults can also actively participate in nature play, however, through child-led play activities.

Nature play significantly improves all aspects of child development – physical, cognitive, social and emotional.

Playing outdoors grows resilience, self-confidence, initiative, creativity and more. It encourages the joy of movement; it nurtures wild imaginations, experimentation, friendships, social connections and behaviour.

 

Nature play has academic benefits

A report from the National Wildlife Federation, Back to School: Back Outside (Coyle, 2010), showed such benefits include:

  • Improved classroom behaviour;
  • Increased student motivation and enthusiasm to learn;
  • Better performance in maths, science, reading and social studies;
  • Reduced Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD);
  • Higher scores on standardised tests (including college entrance exams); and
  • Helps under-resourced, low-income students to perform measurably better in school.

 

There are many wonderful examples of Queensland schools, kindergartens and day care centres incorporating everyday nature play. In some respects, we're leading the way – even internationally – in integrating nature play into schools.

Mapleton State School, for example, increased unstructured, outdoor play with an unstructured play area with natural materials. They make wonderful use of a creek near their school by organising outdoor 'camp-out' days.  Teachers also support students to climb trees and teach them to be aware of their environment in order to play safely in it, such as teaching what to do if they see a snake.

Another example is from Jimboomba, where an Outside School Hours Care has integrated nature play with the fantastic results.  They have noticed that their children responded very well to the program of providing daily unstructured outdoor play time, and said that "the children are so much happier and seem to be developing stronger relationships and bonds".

"We have noticed over approximately the past two months, a reduction in competitiveness, reduction of child disagreements and an increase in children talking to resolve playground grievances assisting in the development of those essential social justice and dispute resolution skills to prepare them for life. We have also received feedback from families saying their children are sleeping well through the night asleep at bed time instead of playing up for a while before falling asleep.

New enrolments are flooding in the doors as well! Nature Play has definitely been a great program to introduce to our service and thank you for your ongoing assistance and support.”   


Benefits of childhood nature play that continue into adulthood

There are many benefits to participating in nature play as a child, which also resonate into adulthood. Such outcomes from nature play include achievement, innovation, creativity, positive relationship development, skill development, self-awareness directly related to employability skills planning, organising, decision making, innovation, problem solving, communication and working with others.  The connection between these skills and the skills that will contribute to success later in life are clear to see.

 

The State of Play

Conversely, children who are not supported, encouraged, inspired or provided the opportunity to develop an intrinsic love of outdoor play are increasingly becoming disconnected from nature, to their detriment.

Children who don’t regularly participate in outdoor play lead sedentary lifestyles and are put at risk. Richard Louv, American social commentator who wrote Last Child in the Woods, coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ to describe children disconnected from nature as an illness. Symptoms of nature deficit disorder (as outlined by Louv, 2005) include depression, hyperactivity, boredom and loneliness. It may also manifest in reduced motor development and diminished mental and psychological health, including lack of attention, learning ability and creativity.

According to ‘Beyond Blue to Green’, a 2010 Australian report on the benefits of contact with nature for mental health and wellbeing, if we don’t take drastic changes to curb current sedentary indoor lifestyle trends, it is foreseeable that obesity, depression, stress, anxiety and mental health issues – which are all closely linked – will also continue to rapidly increase.

 

Need to Balance Screen Time with Green Time

The increase in sedentary recreational behaviour is growing, in almost epidemic proportions. This generation of children, the digital generation, has never known life without a computer or the Internet. Research from the Einstein Medical Centre Philadelphia reported that even by age one, 14% of children are already using electronic devices for an hour a day; this goes up to 26% by the age of two, to 38% by age four, and usage continues to increase with age.

Louv (2005) says when children become more engrossed in – and even addicted to – their technology, they become less connected to their natural environment. Addictions to technology also lead to children becoming disconnected from each other and to society around them.

While we of course need to support the importance of technology as part of modern day life and education, it is vital to encourage mindful and purposeful use of that technology, balanced with nature play every day.

The more high-tech our lives become, the more nature we need.

Recommended Physical Activity & Sedentary Behaviour for Children

 

Minimum Physical Activity Recommendations:

0 to 1 year – Supervised floor-based play in safe environments for healthy development.
1 to 5 years – Physically active every day for at least three hours, spread throughout the day.
5 to 17 years – At least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. On at least three days per week, children should engage in activities that strengthen muscle and bone. To achieve additional health benefits, children should engage in more activity – up to several hours per day.

 

Sedentary Behaviour Recommendations:

0 to 2 years – Spend no time watching television or using other electronic media.
2 to 5 years – Limit of one hour per day sitting and watching television and the use of other electronic media. In addition, children 0–5 years should not be sedentary, restrained or kept inactive for more than one hour at a time, with the exception of sleeping.
5 to 17 years – No more than two hours per day of electronic media for entertainment. Ideally limit use further as lower levels are associated with reduced health risks. Break up long periods of sitting as often as possible.

Derived from Australia's Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines

Nature play - every day

The negative change to outdoor play behaviour has slowly crept in over the past 30 years; it’s a one-generation shift. We are now at a turning point and it’s our generation that holds the key by understanding the implications of reduced outdoor play and passing on our experience of growing up in nature. It’s therefore up to us to inspire and encourage future generations of children back outdoors to play. Nature Play QLD is playing a leading role in the solution.  It is vital that we all take action to curb the rise of sedentary behaviour of children in our communities. 

To reverse these negative trends, consider how children develop value and an intrisic love for outdoor play.  Intrinsic motivation is developed through providing opportunities for self-directed, freely chosen and self-motivated engagement. As educators, catering for choice and providing space for self-led outdoor play will increase the potential that children will value outdoor play, and see it as meaningful and fun.

We can teach children to increase their health and wellbeing from a young age and how to build identity and connection by playing outdoors, connecting with nature and their real community – their local and school community, and in their neighbourhoods. 

 

Nature Play QLD & How We Can Help

Nature Play QLD inspires outdoor play, learning and kids' love of nature. We provide free resources, information, activities and ideas for adults to support their child’s outdoor play. We encourage the community to value nature play, and we support educators and families to prioritise it in children’s lives.

For example, our flagship program, the Passport to An Amazing Childhood resource was developed to inspire children to reconnect with unstructured play in nature. Using a Nature Play passport, which you can order for free, hundreds of nature play missions can be undertaken, and the passports are used to record the child’s nature play adventures.

We want to see everyday nature play become a normal part of every child’s life in Queensland, so that they can develop into resilient, healthy and creative members of the community.

Nature Play QLD has a number of programs aimed at getting kids playing outdoors more often. They are proven, practical ways to help parents raise healthy, resilient and creative children in our modern digital world.

 

Tips to Incorporate Nature Play into Your Educational Setting:

  1. Nature Play's Passport to an Amazing Childhood is a free and interacive resource which provides teacheres, parents, carers and children with access to hundreds of outdoor nature play missions and lesson ideas.  Assign Nature Play QLD activities as in-class projects and use our Passport to an Amazing Childhood program to share their experiences in writing or artwork.
  2. Discuss in the classroom why it is important for our minds and bodies to play outdoors. This conversation could complement our Licence to Play (Outdoors) program, which promotes children’s confidence in their outdoor play competences.
  3. Assign nature play missions as homework with our Nature Play Passports and the Licence to Play (Outdoors) program.
  4. Find inspiration for nature play activities for children aged three and under with our 99 Things to Do Before You’re 3 program for infants and toddlers 
  5. Use the GROW with Nature Play App to find outdoor play activities for 0-3 years, to view how those activities support their healthy development, and to record photos, video and journal content.  Up to thirty children can be added to the app which makes it suitable for early childhood education providers and carers. 
  6. Participate or host a one-day Introduction to Forest Learning Workshop, a taster of how to implement Forest Learning into your educational centre. 
  7. Participate in the 5-day Forest School Level 3 Leader Training, a thorough training qualification which will provide you with the knowledge and skills to set up and run a Forest School.
  8. Connect with Nature Play QLD, so that we can support you in your journey.

 

Other simple ideas for increasing outdoor learning with your class:

  • Understand that using your outdoor environment in your school or centre offers the opportunity for a more inclusive and accessible curriculum for all learners, due to its naturally active multi-sensory appeal.
  • Provide loose parts for children to play with in the playground (branches, sticks, rope, crates, wood, etc.) and allow them to create whatever they can dream up.
  • Create a ‘Why I love playing outdoors’ display board. This could incorporate a week of discussing the topic with the children and include their favourite activities, why they are their favourites and who they love to play with.
  • Explore the natural areas of your school grounds with your students. Go outside and make maps of the school grounds, including all the natural areas.

  • Take your class outdoors for ‘daily grounding’. Ask them to remove their shoes and spend 10 minutes walking or standing on the grass.

  • To build self-regulation and self-risk assessment skills in children, do safety walks around natural areas of the educational setting. Ask children about what they need to think about when playing in these areas in relation to their safety.

 

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