Benefits for Children of Play in Nature

By Randy White

The children's play gardens (naturalized playgrounds) that our company designs for clients emphasize a rich natural environment as the play setting and nature as the play element. Our designs are based upon an extensive body of research and literature on:

  • the significant benefits for children of regular play experiences in nature,
  • children's play preferences, and
  • the most effective designs to support children's development.

Following is a summary of the many benefits that regular play in nature has for children:

  • Children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature (Taylor et al. 2001).
  • Children with views of and contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The greener, the better the scores (Wells 2000, Taylor et al. 2002).
  • Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often (Grahn, et al. 1997, Fjortoft & Sageie 2001).
  • When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills (Moore & Wong 1997, Taylor, et al. 1998, Fjortoft 2000).
  • Exposure to natural environments improves children's cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills (Pyle 2002).
  • Nature buffers the impact of life's stresses on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits (Wells & Evans 2003).
  • Play in a diverse natural environment reduces or eliminates bullying (Malone & Tranter 2003).
  • Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and being at one with the world (Crain 2001).
  • Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder (Cobb 1977, Louv 1991). Wonder is an important motivator for life long learning (Wilson 1997).
  • Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other (Moore 1996).
  • Natural environments stimulate social interaction between children (Moore 1986, Bixler et al. 2002).
  • Outdoor environments are important to children's development of independence and autonomy (Bartlett 1996).
  • Play in outdoor environments stimulates all aspects of children development more readily than indoor environments (Moore & Wong 1997).
  • An affinity to and love of nature, along with a positive environmental ethic, grow out of regular contact with and play in the natural world during early childhood. Children's loss of regular contact with the natural world can result in a biophobic future generation not interested in preserving nature and its diversity (Bunting & Cousins 1985; Chawla 1988; Wilson 1993; Pyle 1993; Chipeniuk 1994; Sobel 1996, 2002 & 2004; Hart 1997; Wilson 1997, Kals et al. 1999; Moore & Cosco 2000; Fisman 2001; Kellert 2002; Bixler et al. 2002; Kals & Ittner 2003; Schultz et al. 2004).

"There's no way that we can help children to learn to love and preserve this planet, if we don't give them direct experiences with the miracles and blessings of nature."

Anita Olds

References

  • Bartlett, Sheridan (1996). Access to Outdoor Play and Its Implications for Healthy Attachments. Unpublished article, Putney, VT
  • Bixler, Robert D., Floyd, Myron E. & Hammutt, William E. (2002). Environmental Socialization: Qualitative Tests of the Childhood Play Hypothesis, Environment and Behavior, 34(6), 795-818
  • Bunting, T.E. & L.R. Cousins (1985) Environmental dispositions among school-age children. Environment and Behavior, 17(6)
  • Chawla, Louise, (1988) Children's Concern for the Natural Environment, Children's Environments, (5)3
  • Chipeniuk, Raymond C. (1994). Naturalness in Landscape: An Inquiry from a Planning Perspective (PhD dissertation), University of Waterloo, Ontario.
  • Cobb, E. (1977). The Ecology of Imagination in Childhood, New York, Columbia University Press.
  • Crain, William (2001). Now Nature Helps Children Develop. Montessori Life, Summer 2001.
  • Fisman, Lianne (2001). Child's Play: An empirical study of the relationship between the physical form of schoolyards and children's behavior, MESc 2001. Accessed June 1, 2004 from www.yale.edu/hixon/research/pdf/LFisman_Playgrounds.pdf
  • Fjortoft, I. And J. Sageie (2000). The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children: Landscape Description and Analysis of a Natural Landscape. Landscape and Urban Planning 48(1/2), 83-97
  • Fjortoft, Ingunn (2001). The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children: The Impact of Outdoor Play Activities in Pre-Primary School Children. Early Childhood Education Journal 29(2), 111-117
  • Grahn, P., Martensson, F., Llindblad, B., Nilsson, P., & Ekman, A., (1997). UTE pa DAGIS, Stad & Land nr. 93/1991 Sveriges lantbruksuniversitet, Alnarp
  • Hart, Roger (1997). Children's Participation: The theory and practice of involving young citizens in community development and environmental care, UK: Earthscan Publications Limited,
  • Kals, E., Schumacher, D., & Montada, L. (1999). Emotional affinity towards nature as a motivational basis to protect nature. Environment & Behavior, 31(2), 178-202
  • Kals, Elisabeth & Ittner, Heidi (2003). Children's Environmental Identity, Indicators and Behavioral Impacts, in Identity and the Natural Environment, The Psychological Significance of Nature, Clayton, Susan and Opotow, Susan (eds), The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • Kellert, Stephen R. (2002). Experiencing Nature: Affective, Cognitive, and Evaluative Development, in Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural, and Evolutionary Investigations. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
  • Louv, Richard (1991). Childhood's Future, New York, Doubleday.
  • Malone, Karen & Tranter, Paul (2003). Children's Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds, Children, Youth and Environments, 13(2), Accessed June 9, 2004 from http://cye.colorado.edu
  • Moore, Robin C. (1986). The Power of Nature Orientations of Girls and Boys Toward Biotic and Abiotic Play Settings on a Reconstructed Schoolyard. Children's Environments Quarterly, 3(3)
  • Moore, Robin (1996). Compact Nature: The Role of Playing and Learning Gardens on Children's Lives, Journal of Therapeutic Horticulture, 8, 72-82
  • Moore, R. & Wong, H. (1997). Natural Learning: Rediscovering Nature's Way of Teaching. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications.
  • Moore, Robin & Cosco, Nilda, (2000). Developing an Earth-Bound Culture Through Design of Childhood Habitats, Natural Learning Initiative. paper presented at Conference on People, Land, and Sustainability: A Global View of Community Gardening, University of Nottingham, UK, September 2000). Accessed June 12, 2004 from www.naturalearning.org/earthboundpaper.html
  • Olds, Anita. Children Come First video, Rifton, NY: Community Playthings
  • Pyle, Robert (1993). The thunder trees: Lessons from an urban wildland. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Pyle, Robert (2002). Eden in a Vacant Lot: Special Places, Species and Kids in Community of Life. In: Children and Nature: Psychological, Sociocultural and Evolutionary Investigations. Kahn, P.H. and Kellert, S.R. (eds) Cambridge: MIT Press
  • Schultz, P. Wesley, Shriver, Chris, Tabanico, Jennifer J. & Khazian, Azar M. (2004) Implicit connections with nature. Journal of Environmental Psychology, 24(1), 31-42
  • Sobel, David (1996). Beyond Ecophobia: Reclaiming the Heart of Nature Education, Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
  • Sobel, David (2002). Children's Special Places: Exploring the Role of Forts, Dens, and Bush Houses in Middle Childhood, Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press
  • Sobel, David (2004). Place-Based Education, Connecting Classrooms & Communities, Great Barrington, MA: The Orion Society.
  • Taylor, A.F., Wiley, A., Kuo, F.E., & Sullivan, W.C. (1998). Growing up in the inner city: Green spaces as places to grow. Environment and Behavior, 30(1), 3-27
  • Taylor, A.F., Kuo, F.E. & Sullivan, W.C. (2001). Coping with ADD: The surprising connection to green play settings. Environment and Behavior, 33(1), 54-77
  • Taylor, A.F., Kuo, F.E. & Sullivan, W.C. (2002). Views of Nature and Self-Discipline: Evidence from Inner City Children, Journal of Environmental Psychology, 22, 49-63
  • Wells, Nancy M. (2000). At Home with Nature, Effects of "Greenness" on Children's Cognitive Functioning, Environment and Behavior, 32(6), 775-795
  • Wells, Nancy M. & Evans, Gary W. (2003). Nearby Nature: A Buffer of Life Stress Among Rural Children. Environment and Behavior, 35(3), 311-330.
  • Wilson, Ruth (1993). Fostering a sense of wonder during the early childhood years. Columbus, OH: Greyden
  • Wilson, Ruth A. (1997). The Wonders of Nature - Honoring Children's Ways of Knowing, Early Childhood News, 6(19).