5 benefits of nature-based play for kids
Nature settings are a fantastic place for playtime, as it offers the space to be physically active and allows kids to use their imagination for games and role-playing. Read on to explore why you should encourage playtime in green outdoor settings.
The forest is a familiar friend to our son. Since he was a few months old, we tucked him into his carrier and embarked on nature trails around Franconia. Nearly every weekend was spent immersed in the forests around the Franconian Swiss. Naturerlebnispfade (nature experience paths) became our go-to destination on the weekends. We would pack a lunch and discover beautiful day hikes that Franconia had to offer, especially around the Franconia Switzerland Jura Nature Park which offers trails with picturesque limestone rock formations, caves and lush forests.
We usually had nature paths to ourselves, affording plenty of room to explore, build, and let our son’s imagination grow. Our go-to forest was the Walderlebniszentrum Tennenlohe in Erlangen, Bayern. It includes a child-friendly forest education center offering a variety of forest learning opportunities, a forest with a barefoot sensory path, and outdoor activities for the kids.
I speak from experience after observing the behaviour difference when playing in nature versus indoors. It’s also a win-win for both of us as we feel more relaxed and content after a nature walk/play. The best thing of all is that nature-based play promotes social and developmental skills, and nature contact benefits human health!
Scientific research investigating unstructured, nature-based play in children is increasing, and we now have evidence demonstrating the benefits of playing, as well as learning in nature-based settings. It's good news because we need robust evidence to influence policymakers to write policies and recommendations supporting nature-based play for children.
What do I mean by nature-based play? I mean free-play in nature settings that have no structure or helicopter parenting. The kids can choose however they want to play without guidance and influence from caretakers.
Here are 5 wonderful benefits of nature-based play for kids:
1. Nature settings help promote social and cognitive development.
A systematic review from Dankiw et al. (2020) found evidence suggesting that nature-based play increases creativity, imagination, and dramatic play, which are all important social development outcomes for children. Children have more freedom to use their imagination and create playful opportunities, and observational studies found that children smile and laugh more compared to teacher-led, structured play, or play heavy with limits.
Research has also reported that children tend to cooperate more with each other in unstructured nature play, which is important for social development. There is also evidence supporting development in leadership, teamwork, critical thinking, and impulse control which is beneficial for children with ADHD (Kuo et al., 2019).
2. Nature settings increases physical activity levels.
Nature offers more room for movement and exploration, allowing children to run, jump, and roll through spaces more freely. These environments are less restrictive and offer plenty of opportunities for movement and fun. We need this more than ever in the time of Covid-19.
Children are increasingly becoming overweight and obese, spending more time indoors and glued to screens than ever. According to the WHO, children in the EU are not meeting the recommended physical activity levels and are increasingly sedentary. This trend exacerbates with Covid-19 lockdowns and carries the additional burden of negatively impacting mental health in children.
A narrative review from López-Bueno et al. (2021) stated that “as a result of school closures and strict restrictions regarding going outside home, children have been one of the most disadvantaged population groups during the lockdown period (p.1). Researchers reviewed 70 studies for potential effects of Covid-19 mobility restrictions on modulating children’s daily habits thus affecting health risks (mostly pre-pandemic studies, there is currently not enough data on the pandemic mobility regulation effects on children’s health) and concluded: “a consequence of isolation, lack of both socio-affective and physical activity stimuli emerge as two of the main concerns, particularly in socio-economic deprived children, although both issues could be mitigated with either adequate parental or community guidance or support” (López-Bueno et al., 2021, p. 4).
3. Nature settings may enhance concentration and learning.
Studies have shown that spending time in nature has rejuvenating qualities, and children have increased concentration afterward. This extends to nature-based learning and green learning environments. A mini-review from Kuo et al. (2019) found that students are more motivated, have better concentration, and are more self-disciplined in nature-based learning settings than traditional, indoor instruction. Nature-based settings are viewed as less restrictive, calmer, and safer, which allows more cooperation among students and teachers.
4. Forests offer unstructured risky play settings which builds resilience and risk assessment experience.
Nature-based play encourages children to be creative, decide to take risks and learn from trial and error. This is risk management and resilience 101. The forest terrain gives them chances to climb and fall, trip on tree roots, fall off tree stumps, figure out what size rock to carry, learn what tree branch is too heavy to carry or dangerous to swing, jump from stone to stone with the risk of falling, assess the height of a tree, climb up and down a tree etc. It's good to allow your children to get a little lost to encourage awareness of their surroundings and instill confidence to find their way back.
Children need these experiences to make assessments regarding the spaces they are in and the action they take. With risky play, children are not heavily monitored and caregivers do not infringe on their play decisions, however they can assist in encouraging more awareness about their bodies (balance and steadiness- is the rock slippery and needs more care to walk on?), their surroundings and the actions they take (is that stick suitable for swinging next to their playmates face? Are there playmates in the direction of stone throwing?). Let the kids know "I am here if you need me".
Nature settings offer ample experience in assessing risk and practicing problem-solving. Bento & Dias (2017) state the importance of letting children assess risk, fail and enjoy the successes- “If we try to prevent all risky situations, children will not know how to deal with unpredictable environments and will lack the necessary confidence to overcome challenges in an autonomous way" (p.159).
5. The forest offers immersed teachable moments for the eco-system and our health.
Nature spaces offer the chance to see and experience the various wonders and life cycles of nature. Kids can marvel at ant hills, discover life living in deadwood, see stages of decomposition, and catch glimpses of wild animals. It offers teachable moments regarding how trees clean our air, how the tree, plant and fungi network are connected, how we need soil for food, how contact with soil is good for our immune systems and gut health etc. This can develop into further discussions about nature conservation and the connection to our health.
Be safe and prepared when venturing out in the forest:
- Scan your kids for ticks and be prepared to remove them with tweezers and apply a disinfectant immediately. Weather permitting- wear hats, long-sleeves shirts and pants (even tuck pant legs into shoes). Spray a tick spray repellent over clothes and exposed skin.
- Keep your children within a safe distance where you can always keep a visual on them. Wearing bright clothes and placing reflectors on their coats and boots is a good idea.
- If you expect the area to be wet: put on a raincoat, rain pants, and rain boots so your child can explore puddles and be comfortable.
- Remember to bring wet wipes to clean their hands and muddy faces, and an extra set of clothing with you.
- Always bring a few pairs of socks and an extra set of shoes, you can change shoes if needed and continue on your path.
Let’s get outside! Look online for fun tips and ways to keep your children engaged during forest visits.
Bento, G & Dias, G. (2017). The importance of outdoor play for young children's healthy development. Porto Biomedical Journal, 2(5). pp. 157-160. ISSN 2444-8664.
Dankiw, KA, Tsiros MD, Baldock, KL, Kumar S (2020). The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review. PLoS ONE 15.
Kuo M, Barnes M, & Jordan C (2019). Do Experiences With Nature Promote Learning? Converging Evidence of a Cause-and-Effect Relationship. Front. Psychol. 10:305. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00305
López-Bueno, R., López-Sánchez, G. F., Casajús, J. A., Calatayud, J., Tully, M. A., & Smith, L. (2021). Potential health-related behaviors for pre-school and school-aged children during COVID-19 lockdown: A narrative review. Preventive medicine, 143, 106349.