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Nature Play is the Developing Brain's Superfood

The Beginning of the Nature Play Journey

I could not have imagined how much I would learn when I began the journey of rolling-out Nature Play QLD February 14th, 2014.

I have always loved nature and most of all immersing children in nature. 

Nature has been a life companion, a source of huge personal value. It’s been a teacher, a space to recreate, rejuvenate, test, trial and master skills, grow as a human, develop my values, beliefs and attitudes and a source of nourishment.

As a father of 4 children nature has enormous value as source of joy, child development, bonding, adventure.

My childhood was spent exploring nature and my neighbourhood. Childhood channeled me into the highly self-motivated, deep nature-loving and community concerned person I am today.

I guess I took it for granted that childhood would always be there.

As my kids have grown, I noticed this is not the case. My wife and I work vigilantly to ensure our children can play, develop and explore outdoors. Most of the time this involves us Grown-Ups, making sure we are not creating barriers to their play.

The Early Childhood Human Brain & Learning:

Of all the nature-play-centric learning I have absorbed, knowledge on brain development astounded me the most. Synapses, neural pathways & pruning, plasticity, executive function, amygdala, hippocampus, frontal lobes, dopamine, serotonin, adrenalin, the environment, and how all these facets come together, shape our thinking, values, beliefs that in turn motivate our behavior, how we approach each other and the world. All from with our skulls. Amazing.

There are many things making humans unique as a species, but our brains are truly incredible. Here are 3 relevant unique facts about being human, that make us very different from any other species on the planet (the commonality is our brains). 

  1. Humans have the longest childhood out of any species on the planet.
  2. Humans occupy the widest diversity of environments on the planet. We can live in the desert and in the artic.
  3. Humans perform the widest diversity of tasks and skills than any other species. From very rudimental (like eating) to highly complex (neuro-surgery) and everything in between.

 

Some facts about the human brain:

  • It adapts to suit its environment.
  • It can learn highly technical and refined skills
  • It takes a lot foundation learning, very early on, to create neural pathways to scaffold and support the learning during adulthood
  • During early childhood the brain is mostly experience-based (learns through doing)
  • It takes a lot of time to learn complex skills of human life
  • There are critical windows of neural development during early childhood
  • Early childhood needs to be highly sensory and experienced based to develop the neural pathways to support a child into adult-centric learning
  • The rule ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it’ applies

Here is another MIND-BLOWING fact (excuse the pun); humans are born with only 2 neural functions: 1. eat and 2, bond (both survival functions). Everything else we know, we have learnt, practiced and mastered since birth. 

Consider all the things you know how to do. All learnt since birth. Truly incredible.

Importance of Play in Early Childhood Development

Neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to learn new tasks) is at its highest during early childhood. Infants are constantly learning, practicing and mastering skills necessary to operate their little bodies as well as function within the environment where they are being raised, as well as learn skills to grow and thrive within that environment. Children’s foundational learning peaks at 7-9 years of age and neuroplasticity across the developmental areas begins to reduce (or harden) from this point (Nagel, 2010).  

Play is the work of childhood. It’s the psychological process built into early childhood for children to develop the neural pathways in their brains, perform tasks that they see as meaningful. To test, practice and build complexity of tasks, to become the adults of tomorrow.  

Concerns for the Nature Play Brain

In relation to the brain and Nature Play QLD’s mission to promote and inspire outdoor play, it is all about ‘THE ENVIRONMENTS OF CHILDHOOD’.

Witnessing the recent extreme reductions in outdoor play, the growing indoor childhood trend and technological immersion of our worlds, the question that keeps coming up for me is ‘what type of adults are modern children preparing to be?

The other ‘Nature Play’ question that comes up for me surrounds autonomy and freedom within childhood.

When are children afforded time and space to play-out what is meaningful to them, without interruption? Children’s play spaces are mostly indoors with little sensory value, play opportunities are interrupted by entertainment devices and adults drive the child’s play-agenda (which seems to always have an adult-centric educational component).

Cultural Changes to Childhood

Society is evolving at rapid pace. We are dragging those most vulnerable, our children, along for the ride, with seemingly little consideration.

Reducing play opportunities and play spaces. Shrinking children’s real-life horizons and directing them to virtual horizons within screens.     

Childhood has gone from largely outdoors, highly active, highly social, independent, self-directed, autonomous, highly adventurous and explorative. To now being largely indoors, sedentary, technologically immersed, highly organized, saturated parental involvement, education outcome driven, fearful, and risk averse.

This is having an enormous impact on our children’s overall health and wellbeing, especially their brain development, regular brain activity and overall mental health.

Decline of Children’s Health over the Past Generation: 

  • 29% of Australian kids are either overweight or obese (ABS, 2016)
  • 81% of Australian children don’t get enough daily physical activity to be healthy (Heart Foundation, 2016)
  • There are 5 times the mental health diagnosis that 25years ago and children are more stressed, anxious and depressed (Twenge etal, 2010)

The Growing Indoor Childhood Trend:

  • Children 5 years old and above are spending over average 4.5hrs a day sitting in front of a screen (Australia Institute of Family Studies, 2015).
  • 39% of Australian children fall asleep with a device (Telstra, 2015)
  • 75% of Australian children use a second device while watching TV (Telstra, 2015)
  • Only 7.4% of Aussie Kids play outdoors everyday (Mullan, Maguire, 2012)
  • Only 13% of Aussie kids play outdoors more than indoors (Planet Ark, 2011)
  • Children spend more time with screens that with friends, family or at school (Greenfield, 2011)
  • Children’s ability to roam their neighbourhood has declined by over 95% (dailymail, 2007)
  • Given the choice most children would prefer to play with technology than play outdoors (Dirt is Good, 2017)

The Reduced Screen-Brain v’s the Supercharged Nature-Play-Brain

Recent neural research exploring brain activity uncovered that during the early years children are constantly learning when they are playing, but it almost stops when they are on screens (Swingle, 2016).

Conversely, when children play outdoors, on the grass, playing with leaves, rocks, dirt, sticks, sands the brain activity is so high. Nature playing is a rich source of touching, movement, hearing, depths of seeing and vision, tasting and smelling. It is a sensory explosion.

This high degree of brain activity is hugely beneficial to our children and their development, growth and learning.

Natural Brain Development Tools

Natural resources are play-tools for our children to play-out what is important to them. 

My son Ralphie, at the age of 1 picked up a stick and used it as a chain saw, then a leaf blower, whipper snipper and hedger. Making sense of his world through play and with nature. Ralphie climbs over logs, hangs on low lying branches, balances on rocks, falls off them, gets up and tries again.

I watch on in amazement, armed with my new nature play brain development knowledge, I can see the neural pathways forming and strengthening in his brain.

Ralphie takes himself to the sand pit, pushes truck though, fills them with sand, making mechanical noises, talking through the process as he goes.

Together we walk around through trees, singing our journey, forming words, expressing our actions, bonding, smiling, connecting and exploring.

With amazement he shows me around the yard, his new discoveries and I respond in awe as I see the world through is his eyes.  

Ralphie follows his older sister and neighbourhood friends through their outdoor play adventures. Looking up, Ralphie sees what is next, trials new skills, is cared for by the children and grows his sense of trust, positivity, optimism and drive to do more.

Freedom in Nature Play

I marvel at his continued brain development and identity growing out of his outdoor play. Most of all I marvel at his self-direction, the amount of learning coming from Ralphie determining what is important to him in his play.

Ralphie has shown me, by providing opportunities to nature play during the early years, following the child’s interests, giving children space to play-out what is important to them, giving them access to open-ended and highly sensory nature, we begin to support and nurture intrinsic motivation in children’s brains and set them up for a life of their own choosing.

In this regard Nature Play really is the superfood of the developing child’s brain. The more we give it this high form of nourishing activity the stronger and more resilient that brain will become.


References:

  • Birth cohort increases in psychology among young Americans 1938-2007. Twenge etal, 2010.
  • Learning in Primary Schoolers, Ass Professor Michael Nagel, 2010
  • www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-462091/How-children-lost-right-roam-generations.html, 2010
  • Climbing Trees: Getting Aussie Kids Back Outdoors; Planet Ark, Climbing Trees, 2011
  • How engaged are children in organised sport and other physical activity during their late primary school years? Australian Institute of Family Studies; Killian, Mullan, Brigit, Maguire, 2012.
  • Australian Institute of Family Studies, 2015
  • Telstra Cyber Safety: Balancing the Screen Time Survey 2015
  • i-minds, Dr Mari Swingle, 2016
  • Children’s Physical Activity Report Card; Heart Foundation, 2016
  • Dirt is Good, Market Research, 2017
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2017
  • Article in Western Australian, Dr Susan Greenfield, 2010

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