A new Australian study finds that nature play can improve children’s complex thinking skills, social skills and creativity.

Researchers from the University of South Australia (UniSA) conducted a systematic review exploring the impact of playing in nature on the health and development of children ages 2 to 12. The study is the first to provide evidence that supports the development of innovative nature play spaces in childcare centers and schools.

The findings, published in the journal PLOS, also support investing in city and urban parks that would deliver important opportunities for children’s physical, social and emotional development.

“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,” said UniSA masters student Kylie Dankiw. “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.”

“By playing in nature, children can build their physical capabilities – their balance, fitness, and strength. And, as they play with others, they learn valuable negotiation skills, concepts of sharing and friendships, which may contribute to healthy emotional and social resilience.”

Working with Associate Professor Katherine Baldock, Dankiw conducted a systematic review of 2,927 peer-reviewed articles. The researchers narrowed it down to 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.

The team found that nature play improved children’s levels of physical activity, health-related fitness, motor skills, learning, and social and emotional development. They also discovered 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,” said Dankiw. “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.

“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.”

Source: University of South Australia