Benefits of Nature-Focused Play
White Hutchinson Leisure & Learning Group compiled an extensive list of benefits children receive when playing in nature, including:
- 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. (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 and includes imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills. (Moore & Wong, 1997; Taylor et al., 1998; Fjortoft, 2000)
- Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other. (Moore, 1996)
For more details about benefits, visit the White Hutchinson Leisure and Learning Group Web site.
Remember climbing trees as a kid? The tree house you built? That stream where you used to catch frogs? Do the kids in your life have chances to explore and play outside — away from electronic toys and computers and structured sports? We all want the very best for our children, but do we need all the bells and whistles to raise happy and healthy kids?
Without question, play is an important part of every child's life. A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics states that "free and unstructured play is healthy and, in fact, essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones, as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient." Through play they explore their world and practice skills they need to become successful adults.
Accompanying the No Child Left Inside movement to reconnect children with their environment is a growing recognition of the benefits of incorporating nature into play areas to invite exploration and a sense of discovery and adventure. A nearby woods or natural area is not essential; what's needed are natural elements that engage the imagination.
Playgrounds with plants, wildlife habitats, and water features provide youngsters with a chance to interact with their environment and participate in creative, self-directed play. Leaves, flowers, pinecones, sticks, and rocks have more creative power than narrowly focused toys. Seasonal and lifecycle changes, such as leaves changing colors and flowers moving from bud to bloom to seed, add to the intrigue of the natural play space and build excitement. Natural spaces can give kids more freedom to move at their own pace and practice decision-making skills.
Under the Oak
The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska has created this type of play area where kids and adults alike might like to while away some hours. Dubbed "Under the Oak," the space was developed to demonstrate how to use natural materials to engage kids in creative play. Sandy Tanck, manager of interpretation and public programs at the arboretum, explains: "Reflecting on what were the most powerful nature-connecting experiences from my own childhood, it was the time I spent on my own or with my friends climbing trees, making a tree house, damming up the stream with rocks, picking wild blackberries, swinging on vines, and digging 'turtle traps.'"
It was with memories like these in mind that the staff at the arboretum set out to create a "simple, interactive nature play space, where children could build and pretend, that would trigger parents and grandparents to recall their own forgotten pastimes, and that might inspire others to create similar places and experiences in their home gardens."
Under the Oak includes features such as:
A woven willow tunnel and a hollow log to crawl through to enter the play area
A fort-building area with simple wooden frames to help kids get started, and additional branches and burlap pieces for customizing their structures
A log tea-party table with stump seats and a hollow bin for "dishes" and "silverware" (a.k.a. tree slices and sticks)
A child-sized butterfly frame on the ground with a body made from foam and covered with landscape fabric. Children decorate the wings with items from a bin of loose parts (pinecones, tree slices, leaves, etc.) and then can lie down on the body to "become" their butterfly.
An elfin village with pinecone elves, wooden furniture, and a pulley transportation system
A puppet stage with tree slices mounted on sticks to use as actors
"We have found visitors really like the area and some stay as long as an hour," reports Tanck. "While there, children spend most of their time engaged in building and pretend play, both cooperative and alone. Even though we used relatively simple building materials, the area has surprising appeal for older children ages 8 to12. It really engages a wide range of ages."
Most of the materials for Under the Oak were scavenged from the arboretum garden, and many of the ideas would be easy and inexpensive to replicate in backyards. Incorporating natural play areas into public spaces such as schools and parks can be a bit more complex because of the need to adhere to specific safety regulations, but with planning and coordination between designers and administrators, it can certainly be accomplished.
Making Nature Part of the Game
Here are a few ideas for starting the process of redefining play spaces to incorporate nature:
1. First, involve your kids in the design. What better way to see the space through their eyes than to let them share their visions. You will probably discover that your kids desire a space with a wild feeling rather than the manicured landscape that usually appeals to adults.
2. Include plants in your playground design. Use a range of plants -- annuals, perennials, shrubs, and trees -- featuring a variety of colors, textures, and shapes. Avoid plants with poisonous or otherwise hazardous parts, like large thorns.
3. Look for simple ways to incorporate water and sand features because they are favorites with kids and provide lots of opportunities for experimentation.
4. Include loose natural items to encourage active play. This can include pinecones, sticks, rocks, acorns, leaves, and flowers, as well as equipment that can be used to explore and/or manipulate nature, such as watering cans, small trowels, spoons, and buckets.
5. Start small and expand as time and space allow. Share in your child's outdoor adventures, but give them plenty of opportunities for self-directed exploration to make sure they are exercising their imaginations and their bodies.
Above all, don't underestimate the value of playtime. The creative skills kids learn on the playground today may help them develop solutions to some of the world's problems in the future.