Dr. Suzanne Quinn, Manager at the KOMPAN Play Institute, writes on the benefits of nature play and natural playgrounds.
Nature play is play that happens in and with nature. Nature play typically involves play with natural elements such as plants and trees, water, dirt, sand, and stones. Most often, nature play happens outdoors, where children can feel the breezes, take in fresh air, observe the changes in weather and seasons, and feel the warmth of the sun on their skin. Nature play excites all of the senses with sights, sounds, textures, scents, tastes, and also with challenges to how the body moves in outdoor spaces.
The term ‘natural playground’ can have a variety of forms. Ideally, a natural playground is a naturalized environment that incorporates nature into a space with opportunities for children to experience different elements of nature and move their bodies in a variety of playful ways. A natural playground is also a place where children play together, with peers and across generations.
Designing the space so that children can take risks, experience thrills, and discover the qualities of natural materials will attract and retain children in the space. In play design, variety of movement and graduated challenges are the key to sustaining play. Along with a variety of non-toxic plants, shrubs, trees, and touchable natural materials in the play space, there should be a variety of structures to support movements, such as climbing, swinging, spinning, rocking, swaying, and balancing. These activities should be accessible and usable for persons of all abilities. Transparent structures, such as ropes climbing structures, are a very good fit for a natural playground, because they allow children to see through the structure from all angles, and this broadens their field of vision for the wonders of the natural landscape that surrounds them.
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Natural playgrounds attract children and their families to the outdoors. With careful design, these playgrounds keep them playing for extended periods of high activity, and in turn, support child development. These playgrounds are important for several reasons:
- They help children to get acquainted with the local ecosystem
- They help children to appreciate and care for the natural world
- They help to reduce stress
- They help to focus attention
- They support active body movements in ways that cannot happen indoors
Create a playful and welcoming atmosphere for all people, criteria include a site that is safe and has good sightlines, is interesting and exciting.
Activate the senses with nature that is touchable, smellable, seeable.
Activate the body with play events to choose from: climbing, swinging, spinning, balancing, rocking and sliding.
Encourage a story to unfold in the playtime.
Respect nature and our common worlds.
Experiences in nature and naturalized environments have benefits for health, well-being, and cognitive functioning (Bratman et al, 2012). For children, developing a connection with nature also supports their desire to participate in conservation efforts (Cheng & Monroe, 2012; Hughes et al, 2018; Wells & Lekies, 2006; Zylstra et al, 2014). A connection with nature requires direct and repeated experiences in natural or naturalized environments. With their emphasis on enjoyment, activity, and socialization, natural playgrounds make for the perfect places to support connections with nature.
Natural playground and nature play give children opportunities for exploration, discovery, and learning, as well as traditional play. Natural playgrounds allow users to move freely and creatively around the environment; exploring, running, jumping, climbing, crawling, touching and even smelling. Connecting children with nature play encourages them to develop gross motor function and fine motor skills as well as broadening their imagination and social skills, all at the same time!
Studies have shown that children enjoy natural playgrounds more than others because they encourage active play and lead to extended playtimes, fantastic! When children go to traditional playgrounds boredom can quickly set in as the structures tend to put limitations on a child’s creativity, challenge and flexibility. Within a nature playground natural elements such as boulders and trees can be used in different ways. Trees to climb higher each time, logs to practice balance or run over, and can even be used as handy seating areas.
Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., & Gretchen C. Daily, G. C. (2012) The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Ann. N.Y. Acad. Sci. 1249 118–136 doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06400.x
Cheng, J. C. & Monroe, M. C. (2012). Connection to nature: Children’s affective attitude toward nature. Environment and Behavior 44: 31 DOI: 10.1177/0013916510385082
Kaplan, S. (1995) the restorative benefits of nature: toward an integrative framework. J EnvironPsychol 15:169-182
Wells, N. M., & Lekies, K. S. (2006). Nature and the life course: Pathways from childhood nature experiences to adult environmentalism. Children, Youth and Environments, 16(1), 1–24.