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Nature play is a vital part of a child’s upbringing, and parents play a critical role

There’s a universal childhood joy in nature play. Climbing trees, making mud pies, and the simple act of playing outside allows children to unleash their creativity and imagination.

Parents and educators alike understand that interacting with nature is a crucial part of a child’s upbringing. Nature play can benefit children by improving their emotional regulation, physical skills, and learning outcomes.

However, recent research from the University of South Australia shows a different narrative when it comes to the ‘messy’ or ‘risky’ aspects of outdoor play.

Strict rules from adults often inhibit substantive nature play

The research conducted at the university involved in-depth conversations with parents and early childhood educators. The findings revealed a surprising tendency.

Adults are more than willing to let children engage in ‘safe’ or ‘clean’ nature play. However, they exhibit hesitation when it comes to activities that are ‘messy’ or could be seen as ‘risky’.

Kylie Dankiw, a researcher and PhD candidate at UniSA, explains that adults act as significant gatekeepers in a child’s exposure to nature play.

Dankiw emphasizes, “Nature play is well known for its positive effects on children’s health, development, and wellbeing. This was a common theme when interviewing parents and carers alike.”

She also notes, “Parents and educators also identified that nature play can help children form a connection with the natural world and learn about sustainable practices.”

Getting “dirty” keeps parents from joining their kids

One of the major insights gathered from the interviews is that adults see nature play as a valuable counterbalance to screen time, like TV and electronic devices. Yet, the research also uncovered a significant obstacle.

The issue, Dankiw explains, is that “parents and caregivers can find it difficult when it comes to engaging children in nature play. This is especially true if activities are messy or dirty (such as water or mud play) or are thought of as being risky (such as climbing).”

For educators, safety regulations and time constraints can often limit the outdoor activities they offer. After all, managing post-mud-play wardrobe changes, or ensuring a child returns home clean from childcare, can be demanding tasks.

Dankiw describes this as “a conflict between encouraging children to experience nature, and what adults need to deal with in the so-called aftermath.”

This issue is particularly relevant in Australia. There, nearly half of the children between ages 0 and 12 (about two million) attend either formal or informal early childhood education care. Long day care is the most common type of care for children between the ages of 0 and 4.

Given the significant number of children in these programs, Dr Margarita Tsiros, a pediatric expert at UniSA, believes additional education and training for both early childhood educators and parents could mitigate the challenges linked with nature play.

“Our research highlights that opportunities for young children to engage in nature play is influenced by other people in their lives,” Dr Tsiros says.

Adults often struggle with the risks of being in nature

Despite acknowledging the benefits of nature play, parents and educators sometimes grapple with the inherent risks of being in nature.

Dr Tsiros argues that understanding these barriers could inform strategies that promote nature play for different age groups. It could also help shape policies and practices that enable these experiences.

In her concluding remarks, Dr. Tsiros states, “A key move will be to boost educators’ knowledge about nature-based learning, what constitutes nature play, and how they can use natural resources to facilitate nature play experiences. In a time where screens threaten to consume children’s interest, it’s vital that we present opportunities for them to engage in nature play, and to achieve this, we need to have parents and educators on board.”

Overall, the value of nature play is clear. However, we must address the challenges associated with it. The key lies in equipping the parents and educators with the right knowledge and strategies.

This will ensure that future generations learn to appreciate nature and the environment. Children will then carry that knowledge with them into adulthood, and hopefully do a better job of caring for the Earth than the generations that came before them.

More about the benefits of raising children in nature

Nature play holds an array of benefits for children across different aspects of their development:

Physical Health and Development

Outdoor activities, like climbing trees and running, help children develop strength, coordination, and motor skills. Regular exposure to sunlight provides Vitamin D, crucial for bone health.

Cognitive Skills

When children play in nature, they engage in exploratory and imaginative play that stimulates problem-solving skills, creativity, and innovation. For instance, a simple stick can become a sword, a magic wand, or a tool, stimulating their creative thinking.

Emotional Wellbeing

Nature play can help children develop better emotional regulation. The calm and serenity found in nature can lower stress levels and improve mood. It also allows children to learn about risk and develop resilience by overcoming small challenges.

Social Skills

Outdoor play often involves interaction with peers, helping children develop essential social skills such as sharing, collaboration, and negotiation. It can also instill a sense of independence and autonomy.

Connection to Nature

Children who spend time outdoors are more likely to develop a lifelong appreciation for nature. They learn to understand the importance of sustainability, and adopt environmentally-friendly practices.

Learning Outcomes

Studies have shown that children who spend more time outdoors are often more focused and attentive when they are in the classroom. This leads to improved academic performance.

Balance to Screen Time

In today’s digital age, children are spending more time on screens than ever before. Outdoor play provides a necessary balance to this trend, promoting physical activity and imaginative play over passive entertainment.

Despite these numerous benefits, nature play can sometimes be overlooked due to concerns about safety and cleanliness. Overcoming these concerns and promoting nature play in a safe and structured way can ensure that children get the myriad benefits from interacting with the natural world.

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