According to a world-first review by the University of South Australia, nature play improves children’s complex thinking skills, social and emotional development, and creativity.
The systematic review explored the impacts of nature play on the health and development of children aged 2-12 years.
Led by UniSA masters student Kylie Dankiw and researcher Associate Professor Katherine Baldock, this study is the first to provide evidence that supports the development of innovative nature play spaces in childcare centres and schools.
The study involved a systematic review of 2927 peer-reviewed articles, with the research consolidating 16 studies that involved unstructured, free play in nature (forest, green spaces, outdoors, gardens) and included natural elements (highly vegetated, rocks, mud, sand, gardens, forests, ponds and water) to determine the impact of nature play on children’s health and development.
“Our research is the first to rigorously, transparently and systematically review the body of work on nature play and show the impact it has on children’s development. We’re pleased to say that the findings indicate a positive connection between nature play and children’s development,” said Ms Dankiw.
The study found playing in nature improved children’s levels of physical activity, health-related fitness, motor skills, learning, and social and emotional development. It also showed that nature play may deliver improvements in cognitive and learning outcomes, including children’s levels of attention and concentration, punctuality, settling in class (even after play), constructive play, social play, as well as imaginative and functional play.
“In recent years, nature play has become more popular with schools and childcare centres, with many of them re-developing play spaces to incorporate natural elements, such as trees, plants and rocks. But as they transition from the traditional ‘plastic fantastic’ playgrounds to novel nature-based play spaces, they’re also looking for empirical evidence that supports their investments,” said Ms Dankiw.
She added that the review provided early childhood educators, health practitioners, policymakers and play space designers with valuable information that could influence urban play environments.
“Nature play is all about playing freely with and in nature. It’s about making mud pies, creating stick forts, having an outdoor adventure and getting dirty.
“These are all things that children love to do, but unfortunately, as society has become more sedentary, risk averse and time-poor, fewer children are having these opportunities.”