What is Nature Play?
As children observe, reflect, record, and share nature’s patterns and rhythms, they are participating in a process that promotes scientific and ecological awareness, problem solving, and creativity.
Deb Matthews Hensley, early childhood consultant
Do you remember where you played as a child? Was it a local creek, the beach, somewhere with trees, mud, water, and/or rocks to find things under? Where do our children play and do they have the same opportunities as we did? When we examine our experiences there are some physical, cognitive, and emotion benefits that we would have gained such as:
- Risk taking (climbing trees)
- Discovery (finding new things)
- Exploration (making a choice to go further and satisfy our sense of adventure and innate curiosity)
- Imagination (games driven by imagination in natural areas conducive to our fantasies/creations)
- Sensory (the smell of algae at the creek or a large peppercorn tree)
- Physical (running and jumping on uneven surfaces)
- Emotional (walking or having the freedom and choice to have quiet time)
- Encounters with nature (seeing a kangaroo, echidna or possum for the first time)
- Team work and cooperation (helping each other across a creek or climbing over a log)
From these experiences we have spent quite a bit of time outdoors in nature enabling opportunities to develop a deep appreciation and awareness for the natural environment. Looking back over thousands of years humans have had daily contact with the natural world absorbing experiences similar to those mentioned. However with the increase in urbanisation and with backyards becoming smaller, that daily contact has significantly been reduced – in some cases replaced with screen time or indoor activities. Our challenge is to provide our children with access to the range of play opportunities (and associated benefits) that we had and that will also assist with their physical, emotional, and cognitive development.
Research is telling us that there are changes in children’s behaviour associated with spending less time outdoors. This observation has been termed ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ by Richard Louv who is the author of Last Child in the Woods. He has produced a short clip to describe his perspective: http://richardlouv.com/books/last-child/videos/ which is shared by many in the childhood research sector.
Given the disconnectedness that has been described by many researchers there is an urgent need to look at the developmental windows in a child’s life to engage with the natural environment. A large part of this window is ‘play’ and a large portion of play in a child’s life is at school or an early learning setting. Therefore we have a unique opportunity to provide access to a range of play opportunities that reflect the skills and experiences that we had as children. Natural playscapes can provide this type of environment in a safe and controlled manner.
A natural playscape is a play space that provides children with access to range of opportunities that reflect the natural world such as loose parts (leaves, twigs, and logs), different surfaces and terrain (mounds, slopes), plants (sensory), water, mud, construction opportunities with natural elements (sand, sticks, fabric), areas for reflection (a rock near a pond or under a tree), areas for hiding (bamboo, sunflowers), areas for imaginative play such as boats, decks, winding pathways, and areas to hide.
Of particular relevance to playscapes is a quote by Richard Dattner (1988, p. 77)
A playground should be like a small-scale replica of the world, with as many as possible of the sensory experiences to be found in the world included in it. Experiences for every sense are needed, for instance: rough and smooth objects to look at and feel; light and heavy things to pick up; water and wet materials as well as dry things; cool materials and materials warmed by the sun; soft and hard surfaces; things that make sounds (running water) or that can be struck, plucked, plinked, etc; smells of all varieties (flowers, bark, mud); shiny bright objects and dull, dark ones; things both huge and tiny; high and low places to look at; materials of every type, natural, synthetic, thin, thick, and so on. The list is inexhaustible, and the larger the number of items that are included, the richer and more varied the environment for the child.