While parents are desperate to get their children away from screens, experts are encouraging parents to see past the playground, with its queue by the swings and fights for whose turn it is to slide. Instead, they are promoting the lifelong benefits of playing in nature.
“There is a global movement looking to have more outdoor nature play, particularly in the early years,” says Associate Professor Janet Dyment from the School of Education at the University of Tasmania.
“There are a lot of people who worry about children not having access to nature spaces.”
She explains that children playing in the playground, instead of in nature, miss out on creative, imaginative play that is open-ended and unstructured.
“Nature play is when children are provided with the opportunity to engage in unstructured play activities in outdoor settings where natural elements feature, such as logs, rocks and water, as opposed to conventional manufactured play equipment,” says Dr Dyment.
It is when children create their own play using natural features.
Dr Dyment says that there are potential barriers around children being allowed to engage in nature play.
“A lot of the barriers are around this fear that children might get hurt more in nature play, for example from bees or falling from the log or rocks or tripping,” she says.
“Increasingly, the argument is being made that the risks of not allowing nature play are actually greater than the risks from the potential minor injuries from nature play.
“Another barrier is this culture of helicopter parenting, where a lot of parents just don’t want their children to have free play in the bush.
“To add to all of that, parents are also busier. So, children are being enrolled in more structured activities like ballet, or swimming, or piano.”
As a result, that opportunity for unstructured, free play in nature can be quite compromised.
Dr Dyment adds that for some children don’t know how to play in nature, and need time and space to learn.
“It’s about getting your children to these spaces, getting them in the right clothes for this type of play, spending a lot of time in these places and ultimately, trusting your children to play in nature,” she says.
The value of nature play
“There is a mountain of international research that points to the benefits of nature play for young children,” says Dr Dyment.
“The first being the physical benefits.
“Children who engage in nature play, they move in different ways to other types of play.
“They move in ways that promote their physical wellness.
“They are lifting rocks, they are climbing over things, they are running through their imaginary nature spaces.”
In addition, research from 2018 found that children who lived in greener areas, were less likely to be asthmatic.
“Then there is socially,” continues Dr Dyment.
“Young children are able to learn a number of social skills in nature play settings.
“Often on manufactured play equipment, there is a hierarchical social structure.
“The strong kids or the popular kids get the privilege to be on the swing or go on the slide, while in nature play it is socially level.”