Nature play: The benefits of outdoor play for child development

It can be hard to get my autistic 7-year old moving, which is the reason I have found myself advocating for nature play. My son is an indoors boy, preferring LEGO, toy trains and drawing to climbing trees, jumping on the trampoline and kicking a ball. Much of his physical development happens inside the four walls of a therapy clinic, with an occupational therapist inventing games that get him climbing, crawling, jumping, balancing and swinging.

But there’s one environment I find encourages him to move around space like he would in a therapy session, minus the fee: nature. When we go to the beach, for example, he treks across the sand, explores the sand dunes, moves from standing, to sitting, to squatting, to lying as he builds sandcastles, carries buckets of water, jumps over the waves, navigates his way across the rocks, and runs along the edge of the water. 

Play is exercise

As a group of doctors in a research paper in the journal, Peadiatrics, say: ‘Play builds active, healthy bodies.’ They write that ‘encouraging unstructured play may be an exceptional way to increase physical activity levels in children, which is one important strategy in the resolution of the obesity epidemic.’

The benefits of regular activity include brain development, bone strength, muscle control, balance and coordination, and maintaining a healthy weight. Play is a simple way to get kids moving independently.

Research also shows the particular benefits of physical play to kids with disability. A study found that 79% of autistic children had movement impairments, which were worsened by an inactive lifestyle. Physical activity was found to decrease negative behaviours and improve mood, coping skills, and overall quality of life.

Nature play is good for the body and the brain.

My observations of my son let free in nature is supported by research. Natural play environments, according to science, increase children’s level of physical activity. And it doesn’t stop there. It improves a kid’s cognitive, emotional and motor development, focus, attention span and social skills.

It may look like idle work to adults, but children’s play is crucial for their development. Play provides so many learning opportunities, from social skills to fine motor skills to physical development. In fact, play is so important that the United Nations lists it as a human right for children.

Kids with disability may miss out on mainstream physical activities. 

I know many parents who struggle to find a suitable sport for their kids with disability. These kids make up a big chunk of the population — about 14% of kids in NSW public schools have a disability or special needs, according to the NSW Legislative Council.  This includes kids with autism, ADHD and anxiety.

Often kids with disability lack the skills to feel included or successful in team sports. Kids with sensory issues or anxiety may find group activities or busy playgrounds too noisy or overwhelming.

Kids with disability are also less likely to engage in physical activity because of lack of appropriate opportunities. Team sports, for example, may be too complex or competitive, and play equipment may be too difficult or unsuitable for their skills or interests.

Unstructured, informal play can provide great opportunities for kids of all abilities to participate.

There’s an interesting project in Sydney where researchers left ‘loose objects’ in the playgrounds across 12 schools, and observed how kids interacted with them. The objects have no defined play purpose – for example, a pile of old tires and milkcrates.  The Sydney Playground Project, as it’s called, found that kids used the objects to engage in creative, social and active play. The loose objects increased physical activity and included marginalised children, including those with disability. 

Nature is rich with ‘loose objects’, like boulders, sticks and stones, that kids can use for imaginative play.

(Here’s a link to the the loose objects project if you want to know more: The Sydney Playground Project.)

Nature is a playground.

Many playground spaces are not inherently inclusive of children of varying abilities and needs. Natural environments — bushwalks, lagoons, beaches, riverbanks — can be a good alternative. Taking kids into natural environments encourages physical activity by facilitating explorative, unstructured and free play. Nature enables children who do not regularly use playground equipment to engage in incidental exercise. This may include balancing along logs, climbing over rocks, crawling up a sand dune, digging in dirt or building a stick fort.

Natural landscapes provide kids of differing social, emotional and physical abilities with opportunities for incidental exercise, social interactions, and imaginative play. Nature can be a safe and calm play space where kids are encouraged to move through exploration, discovery and play.

Nature play is peaceful.  

The great outdoors usually means a quiet play environment, which is particularly appealing to kids with anxiety or autism. Environments, like the beach or bushland, are non-competitive and non-threatening. Play researchers also say natural environments can help encourage social interactions between all kids, including those who avoid or cannot participate in typical playground activities, like handball and soccer.

That’s why, in a bid to keep my son active, we take regular family days to the beach or a park, and I started a local kids’ bush-walking club with weekly walks. He will complain about going, but once we are there, he gets all the physical therapy he needs with the added bonus of fresh air and sunlight. And it’s free.

Kids who struggle with psychical activity may also have eating challenges. If that’s your situation, check out this article: Do you have a fussy eater? Here’s what worked for me.

References

Fjortoft, I., and Sageie, J. (2000). “The Natural Environment as a Playground for Children: Landscape Description and Analysis of a Natural Landscape.” Landscape and Urban Planning. 48(1/2): 83-97.

Wells, N. (2000). “At home with nature Effects of “Greenness” on Children’s Cognitive Functioning.” Environment and Behaviour. 32(6): 775-795.

Malone, K., and Tranter, P. (2003). “Children’s Environmental Learning and the Use, Design and Management of Schoolgrounds.” Children, Youth and Environments. 13(2).

Sterman, J., Villeneuve, M. and Spencer, G. (2019) ‘Creating play opportunities on the school playground: Educator experiences of the Sydney playground project.’ Australian Occupational Therapy Journal 67 (1): 62-73.

Woolley, H. (2012) ‘Now Being Social: The Barrier of Designing Outdoor Play Spaces for Disabled Children.’ Children and Society 27 (6): 448-458.

Ginsburtm K. (2007) ‘Now Being Social: The Barrier of Designing Outdoor Play Spaces for Disabled Children.’ Pediatrics 119 (1): 182-191

Green, D., Charman, T., Pickles, A., Chandler, S., Loucas, T., Simonoff, E., Baird, G. (2009). ‘Impairment in movement skills of children with autistic spectrum disorders.’ Development Medicine and Child Neurology 51 (4): 311-316

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