Mother nature and child development: Reshaping modern play spaces for children’s health

Summary: Allowing a child to play in nature helps improve their physical health, motor skills, learning ability, social development, and emotional wellbeing.

Source: University of South Australia

A world-first review of the importance of nature play could transform children’s play spaces, supporting investment in city and urban parks, while also delivering important opportunities for children’s physical, social and emotional development.

Conducted by the University of South Australia the systematic review explored the impacts of nature play on the health and development of children aged 2-12 years, finding that nature play improved children’s complex thinking skills, social skills and creativity.

Led by UniSA masters student Kylie Dankiw and researcher Associate Professor Katherine Baldock, this study is the first to provide evidence that supports the development of innovative nature play spaces in childcare centres and schools.

“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,” Dankiw says.

“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.

“For early childhood educators, health practitioners, policymakers and play space designers, this is valuable information that may influence urban play environments and re-green city scapes.”

This shows children playing in a tulip field
Conducted by the University of South Australia the systematic review explored the impacts of nature play on the health and development of children aged 2-12 years, finding that nature play improved children’s complex thinking skills, social skills and creativity. Image is in the public domain.

Comprising a systematic review of 2927 peer-reviewed articles, the research 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.

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

“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.

“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.”

About this neurodevelopment research article

Source:
University of South Australia
Media Contacts:
Annabel Mansfield – University of South Australia
Image Source:
The image is in the public domain.

Original Research: Open access
“The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review”. Kylie A. Dankiw, Margarita D. Tsiros, Katherine L. Baldock, Saravana Kumar.
PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0229006.

Abstract

The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review

Background
Nature play is growing in popularity as children’s play spaces are transforming from traditional playgrounds into more nature-based play spaces with considerable financial and resource investment from government bodies. This has resulted in the re-development of children’s play spaces to incorporate more natural elements such as trees, plants and rocks. Despite this, it is unclear whether there is empirical evidence to support claims that play in nature is beneficial for child health and development.

Aim
To conduct a systematic review examining the impacts of nature play on the health and developmental outcomes of children aged 2–12 years.

Methods
Seven electronic databases were searched (MEDLINE, ERIC, Embase, PsycINFO, The Cochrane Library, The Joanna Briggs Institute and Emcare) from inception to July/August 2018 (search updated July/August 2019). The Inclusion criteria were children aged 2–12 years with no health/developmental conditions. The exposure/intervention of interest was unstructured, free play in nature. Critical appraisal of included studies was conducted using the McMaster Critical Appraisal Tool. Descriptive synthesis was then undertaken using the NHMRC FORM Framework.

Results
Out of 2927 articles identified, 16 studies met the inclusion criteria. The nature play exposure/intervention was heterogeneously described, and a plethora of outcome measures were used. Nature play had consistent positive impacts on physical activity outcomes and cognitive play behaviours (imaginative and dramatic play). However, there remain some concerns regarding the quality of the evidence base, heterogeneity in intervention description and parameters in the outcome measures used.

Conclusions
While the positive impacts of nature play were encouraging in terms of physical activity and cognitive development, nature play stakeholders should focus on producing a universal definition for nature play, the development of standardised outcome measures and the conduct of robust research designs. Implications of these findings suggest the need for the development of standardised guidelines to inform practice and policy in the design of children’s play spaces in different contexts.

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