Daily outdoor free play is essential for children’s mental, social and physical development. It has a key role in reducing health issues, including obesity and mental illness, that place a growing burden on individuals, communities and nations. Children who play in nature build their creativity, resilience and problem solving skills and build connections with their environments and their communities. 

Also, the relationship nurtured between children and their natural worlds through outdoor free play is essential for the future conservation of their environments.
Outdoor free play is in decline across Australia and the developing world with potential ongoing detrimental developmental impacts. Reasons for this decline are complex and multi-dimensional. Cross-departmental collaboration and wide community support are essential to bridge the growing gap between the lack of daily outdoor free play and a full and healthy childhood with strong connections with nature. Land managers and government agencies including national parks, state forests and local governments can reduce barriers and enhance opportunities for outdoor free play. Outdoor Play is Everybody’s Business.


This document is part of series of evidence-based position statements focused on childhood and outdoor free play. They intend to demonstrate the importance, benefits, issues as well as actions required to support children to grow healthy, happy and strong through regular daily outdoor free play.  
What follows is the product of a thorough examination of key benefits and barriers associated with daily outdoor free play in modern childhood. Central to this document are key considerations and recommendations to enable real and meaningful changes that both safeguard childhood, support child development and the conservation of their natural environments.  

ENVIRONMENTAL BENEFITS – Our children need nature and nature needs our children

  • A positive environmental ethic, affinity with and love of nature grows from children’s regular contact with and play in nature (Bunting 1985; Wilson 1993; Chipeniuk 1994; Sobel 2004; Kals et al. 1999; Moore & Cosco 2000; Kellert 2002; Bixler et al. 2002; Kals & Ittner 2003; Phenice & Griffore 2003; Schultz et al. 2004).
  • Children’s emotional and affective values of nature develop earlier than their abstract, logical and rational perspectives (Kellert, 2002).
  • Once children have developed a relationship with their environment they will be more receptive to learning facts and responsibility (Wilson 1997).
  • Children develop emotional attachments to what is familiar and comfortable (Wilson 1997).
  • The more children have experiences in nature, the more environmentally concerned and active they will be as grownups in the future (Bunting & Cousins 1985, Harvey 1989).
  • If a child develops with little or no regular contact with the natural world, this can lead to children seeing themselves as separate and not a part of nature (Phenice & Griffore 2003, Sobel 1996).
  • A child can develop a distrust of natural environments (Bixler, et al. 1994, Bixler, et al. 1997).
  • Through outdoor free play children develop socialisation and interpersonal skills (empathy, negotiation, compromise, leadership, self-confidence, self-awareness and self-regulation), motor skills and physical literacy, enhanced sense of curiosity, resilience and problem-solving skills and a sense of agency (e.g. Beyer et al., 2014; Burdette & Whitaker, 2005; Hughes, 2007). All elements needed to become active, community and environmentally conscious adults.
  • Children prefer natural landscape features in their play (Azlina and Zulkiflee, 2012) and remnant bushlands form important play spaces.
  • Outdoor and natural spaces encourage free play, provide varying and changing stimuli and encourage a greater level of physical activity in comparison to indoor environments (Azlina and Zulkiflee, 2012).
  • Field and parklands leading to free running or ball game type activities, while bush and trees provide opportunities for exploration, adventure and hide and seek.
  • Children who are physically active are less likely to suffer from acute or chronic health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure and are less likely to be overweight or obese (e.g. AEDC, 2016).
  • Children who are physically active outdoors have enhanced psychological wellbeing and reductions in stress, anxiety and depression (e.g. AEDC, 2016).
  • Childhood habits related to physical activity informs behaviour in adulthood. Sedentary behaviours in childhood impact on long term health trajectories with health, social and financial burdens for individuals, communities and nations (e.g. Centre for Disease Control & Prevention, USA; Department of Health, UK; Federal Ministry of Health, Germany; The Department of Health, Australia).
  • Opportunities for free play in childhood is a predictor on social success and individual adaptability (Greve and Thomson, 2016; Barker et al., 2014; Lillard et al., 2013).
  • Having an element of danger or challenge to overcome is important to many children in their play; risk taking helps to prevent boredom and provides movement and confidence (Miller and Kuhaneck).
  • The quality of the outdoor environment enhances children’s benefits from outdoor free play, with undeveloped green spaces being related to increased physical activity (Janssen & Rosu, 2015).
  • Children prefer facilities that are challenging and not traditional (Aziz and Siad, 2012).
  • Overly engineered, landscaped, formal playgrounds and planned spaces can be boring to a child (Aziz and Siad, 2012).
  • Diverse landscape settings including bushland, creeks and wetlands meet children’s diverse needs for variety and stimulating environments. Children prefer natural landscape features in their play (Azlina and Zulkiflee, 2012).

THE PROBLEM - The decline of outdoor free play is an environmental issue in Australia

  • Until the 1980’s nearly all suburban Australian homes had large backyards by international standards and house footprints covered 20 - 30% of land. Since the 1990’s this has changed with substantial backyards disappearing and dwellings covering most of the developable area (Hall, 2010; Spurrier et al., 2008).
  • Changes in community design and structure including wide roads, apartment and high-rise living, more cars, reduced line of sight, high fences, increased traffic and a loss or reduction in neighbourhood greenspace have decreased play opportunities (Long, 2007).
  • Children spend less time outdoors in nature and more time indoors, sedentary, watching or engaging with a screen (Brussoni et al., 2015; Bell et al., 2015; Mc Curdy et al. 2010).
  • Only 19% of Australian children aged 5 -17 years meet physical activity guidelines of at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity a day (AHAK, 2016).
  • Only 26% of 2-4 year old’s and 30% of 5 -17 year old’s meet the sedentary behaviours screen time guidelines everyday (AHAK 2016).
  • According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2016) anxiety disorders form the second highest source of burden of disease among 5 - 14 year old boys and depressive disorders fall within the top 5. For girls aged 5 -14 years old, anxiety disorders are identified as the top source of burden of disease with depressive disorders identified as the 3rd source.
  • Only 26% of children aged 5-14 have a body max index (BMI) score that is above the international scale for ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ for their age and sex (AIHW, 2016).
  • According to the Australian Early Development Census (AEDC) (2016), 1 in 5 children are developmentally vulnerable across at least one measured domain. The proportion of children vulnerable in physical health and wellbeing, social competence and emotional maturity increased in 2015 from previous results.
  • In Queensland 1 in 4 children are identified as developmentally vulnerable in one or more domains (26.1%) and the percentage of children developmentally vulnerable in each domain and in one or two or more domains is higher than any other state other than the Northern Territory (AEDC, 2016).
  • Children from racial or ethnic minorities, particularly in urban environments, and those from low socio-economic backgrounds are disadvantaged in their access to natural areas for play and frequency of visits to natural / green spaces. 
  • Boys are also more likely to engage in outdoor free play than girls (Hunt et al., 2016). 

KEY CONSIDERATIONS - Outdoor free play policy and planning reforms

  • Children have greater opportunities for outdoor free play if spaces are available close to their homes and easily accessible.
  • While it is important to attract families to national parks for holidays and planned excursions, it is also important for children to have access to local nature spaces and remanent bushland.
  • Initiatives can celebrate unique local landscapes and wildlife, including flora and fora that can be found in local parks, streets and backyards.
  • Every green space is a potential play space; forests, swamps and lakes all provide play opportunities for children, create a sense of adventure and challenge and stimulate the imagination.
  • There are potential opportunities for collaboration between those that manage environmental assets and those that work with children (schools, early childhood centres and health professionals) to encourage greater utilisation of these spaces.
  • Outdoor free play, including in natural landscapes, is too important to use management strategies that simply restrict children’s access to these spaces.
  • Opportunities can be sought for children to be involved in the management and protection of ecosystems to create a sense of ownership and responsibility.
  • Community events and marketing can be used to attract more families to national parks and state forests.
  • Facilities (BBQs, picnic areas, bathrooms, walking tracks and play equipment) can help attract families and children to bushland.
  • Local green spaces act as bridges to deeper environmental concern.


Next Steps – Aligning Outdoor Play and Environment

Strengthening children and their connection to the natural world

National parks, environmental agencies, state forests and local governments play an important role in maintaining and promoting diverse natural areas that can be used for outdoor free play. The hard work done to engage families and children with nature and the outdoors is evident in the growth and maintenance of environmental education centres and initiatives such as Kids in National Parks, run by the National Parks Association of Queensland. The last few years has seen the development of key Nature Play areas, including Karawatha Forest Discovery Centre (Brisbane City Council), Daisy Hill Conservation Park (Logan City Council) and Centenary Lakes in Cairns.

Nature Play QLD helps engage children and families with natural areas through community events and free resources and information including “things to do” lists, places to visit and initiatives such as the Passport to an Amazing Childhood.  

Nature Play QLD would like to invite organisations and government agencies to continue to strengthen their engagement and leadership with outdoor free play that also nurtures the ongoing care for the environment. Five key suggestions are:

  1. Meeting with Nature Play QLD and discussing ways in which National Parks and Nature Play QLD can work together to strengthen their existing collaborative efforts,
  2. Meeting with Nature Play QLD and discussing ways in which National Parks and Nature Play QLD can work together to strengthen their respective social media networks and engagement with families.
  3. Working towards a shared vision for encouraging and increasing family and children’s access to National Parks as key play spaces.
  4. Working with Nature Play QLD to develop a suite of resources aimed at increasing the use of natural spaces by children and families.
  5. Exploring potential resourcing opportunities to support increased advocacy and direct initiatives to increase children’s access to outdoor free play.


The Outdoor Play is Everybody’s Business Position Statements were developed by Nature Play QLD

Ph: 07 3367 1989




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