Last updated on Jul 7th, 2020 at 02:02 pm

Move over indoor play parks, research has found that nature play benefits children’s health, cognitive abilities and creativity…

Researchers from the University of South Australia looked at how nature play impacts the health and development of children aged two to 12 years old.

They found that nature play improved children’s complex thinking skills, social skills and creativity.

“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,” says lead researcher Kylie Dankiw, UniSA masters student.

Interestingly, creating an outdoor play area is one of the top gardening trends for 2020, according to Pinterest. 

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What is nature play?

“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,” Dankiw says.

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.

Growing up in a green neighbourhood improves kids’ mental health as adults

The study

For the study, researchers reviewed 2927 peer-reviewed articles and consolidated 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.

How nature play improved children’s health

The study found that nature play improved children’s levels of physical activity, health-related fitness, motor skills, learning, and social and emotional development.

“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,” says Dankiw

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.

Hopefully, these findings will influence urban play environments and motivate for re-greening cityscapes.

Why children need to spend time in nature

Source: University of South Australia via

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