Both playing in nature and simply being outside offer children significant mental and physical health benefits. Nature-based play can reduce anxiety, phobias, and depression, as well as decrease the risk of obesity and heart disease later in life. Despite the benefits, children today are spending less time outside than ever before. As parents and educators, we need to make a conscious effort to encourage kids to explore the great outdoors. Read more about nature-based play via the resources below.
“Preschools Without Walls”
For this New York Times article, Lillian Mongeau visits Fiddleheads Forest School in Seattle and interviews directors of other nature preschools across the country.
“A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play”
In this article for Natural Start Alliance, Ken Finch offers suggestions to parents on how to best facilitate nature play.
“Parents Agree, ‘Our Kids Need More Nature!’”
This Playworks post highlights results from a Nature Conservancy survey of parents with kids ages 3 to 18.
“Outdoor Learning ‘Boosts Children’s Development’”
BBC News Environment Reporter Mark Kinver highlights key findings from a report on outdoor learning’s impact on childhood development.
“Remember Playing Outside Until Mom Called You in for Dinner? Today’s Kids Probably Won’t.”
This National Wildlife Federation webpage lists health benefits from spending time outdoors and cites sources to specific studies.
“Forest Kindergarten: Into the Woods with Preschool Explorers”
Jenni Frankenberg Veal with nooga.com visits Chatanooga’s first forest kindergarten.
“The Magic of No Walls”
Here Morgan Tilton writes about a visit to Fiddleheads Forest School near Seattle, Washington, where she observes the environment, the teaching philosophy, and the benefits children get from being outdoors.
“Can Green Spaces at Schools Make Children Smarter?”
In this article for The Washington Post, Ariana Eunjung Cha looks at different studies that analyze the effects of green spaces on children’s physical and mental health.
“Let the Kids Play: Nature Can Take It”
Writing for Treehugger, Katherine Martinko writes about children’s need to be physically involved when exploring the outdoors – which doesn’t always align with adult standards of environmental sensitivity and respect. She discusses the idea of “nature play areas” in national parks where children are free to dig, climb, pick, and hold without being admonished.
“Let Kids Run Wild in the Woods”
Emma Marris writes for Slate about park ranger Matthew Browning’s concern that children are no longer able to enjoy playing in nature. Trips to National Parks or similar areas are frequently accompanied with so many rules that there isn’t much room for fun. Browning proposes designated areas where children are free to “leave a trace” and can simply enjoy playing in the woods. He visits similar spaces in Europe and concludes that these types of play zones can handle children’s rough play and still remain functional natural areas.
Timothy D. Walker writes for The Atlantic about visiting a new forest kindergarten in Finland where students engage in regular preschool rituals, just outside in the woods, and also have lengthy time for free play. He also looks at the Ottauquechee School in Vermont that first implemented “Forest Friday”, which has sparked a movement across schools in New England.
“Benefits of Connecting Children with Nature: Why Naturalize Outdoor Learning Environments”
This InfoSheet by The Natural Learning Initiative and North Carolina State University College of Design discusses the benefits of outdoor learning environments and presents ways to improve existing outdoor spaces in childcare centers.
“Nature, Childhood, Health and Life Pathways”
This paper from the University of Essex’s Interdisciplinary Center for Environment and Society (iCES) studies the benefits of both nature and physical activity to children at different stages of development and presents best-practices for incorporation into public policy and urban design.
“The Impact of Children’s Exposure to Greenspace on Physical Activity, Cognitive Development, Emotional Wellbeing, and Ability to Appraise Risk”
This study of New Zealand 11-to-14-year-olds found a positive association between green space exposure and moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, both of which contributed to emotional wellbeing. Other factors were also studied including risk taking, sensation-seeking behaviors, body mass index, and cognitive development.
“Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s Play Settings”
Andrea Faber Taylor and Frances E. (Ming) Kuo published this study in Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being. They looked at 421 children with ADHD symptoms and their play areas and found that “everyday play settings make a difference in overall symptom severity in children with ADHD. Specifically, children with ADHD who play regularly in green play settings have milder symptoms than children who play in built outdoor and indoor settings.”
“Green Spaces and Cognitive Development in Primary Schoolchildren“
This study published by Payam Dadvand and others in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America “assesses the association between exposure to green space and measures of cognitive development in primary school children” by considering the green spaces around homes, schools, and commutes. They observed superior working memory and a reduction in inattentiveness in children with more greenspaces around their schools.
“Linking Student Performance in Massachusetts Elementary Schools with the ‘Greenness’ of School Surroundings Using Remote Sensing“
This study of Massachusetts third-graders found a relationship between the “greenness” surrounding a school and school-wide academic performance on the state standardized test.
Natural Start Alliance
A project of the North American Association for Environmental Education, the Natural Start Alliance aims to connect children with nature. Their site has links to research and includes a list of nature preschools.
Children & Nature Network
This group envisions “a world in which all children play, learn and grow with nature in their everyday lives.” Their site includes an extensive research library and a news center.
Nature Play SA
This group in South Australia promotes unstructured, outside, free play for children. Their site features a blog and lovely, inspiring images of children playing outdoors.
Blog: Teacher Tom: Teaching and Learning from Preschoolers
A preschool teacher makes observations about his students and their nature-based play, among other topics.
Run by pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom, TimberNook offers outdoor play programs for children. The TimberNook blog covers many topics, including active play, vestibular input, nature programming, sensory work, and outdoor exploration.
Blog: A Joyful Kindergarten
This blog highlights the activities of a public school kindergarten class that frequently holds class outside for “Forest Days”.
Book: Balanced and Barefoot: How Unrestricted Outdoor Play Makes for Strong, Confident, and Capable Children
Pediatric occupational therapist Angela Hanscom presents the case that outdoor play and unstructured movement are crucial to childhood development.
Book: The Last Child in the Woods
In this national bestseller, Richard Louv examines the detrimental effects of modern children’s disconnected relationship with nature and presents practical solutions to this relatively new problem.
Book: Nature Preschools and Forest Kindergartens: The Handbook for Outdoor Learning
Environmental education experts David Sobel and Patti Ensel Bailie, along with others in the field, offer a practical guidebook for establishing a nature-based school.