The Importance of Nature Play

Playing hide and seek in long grass. Climbing trees. Gazing skywards imagining clouds as different shapes. Swimming in the ocean and learning to ride waves. Endless summer nights camping beach side and eating ice creams while admiring sunsets. Collecting shells and building sand castles. Bush walks and climbing hills. Spending hours trying to dam a creek. Biking everywhere. Listening to a cacophony of cicadas signalling summertime. Splashing in puddles and playing in the mud. Exploring caves and sighting glow worms. Feeding the ducks at the local pond.

Cloud gazing and tree climbing

These were memorable features of my North Island New Zealand childhood. Being lucky enough to grow up with a backyard and plenty of surrounding land to roam, my brothers and I spent a lot of time outside and our parents took us on many trips around our beautiful homeland. I learned to treasure nature and the outdoors. I developed a deep wonder and respect for the land and all living things, creating a basis for continuing outdoor exploration into adulthood: seeking out mountains, rivers, hills and coasts around the globe. These experiences helped form the foundation of my pro-environmental views and my desire to pursue an environmentally focused career.

Seeking out nature in all its diversity

I researched the influence that nature experiences have on people, and whether they affect pro-environmental behaviour development (behaviours which reduce impacts upon or enhance nature) as part of my MSc in Education for Sustainability. We know that nature can have a range of (predominantly positive) impacts on people – our emotions, our psychology, our physiology: reducing stress, anxiety, depression and sadness; increasing positive emotions, energy, tranquility and well-being. We also know that experiencing nature can lead to building connections with it – similar to having strong social relationships. This can vary from feelings of belonging, to recognising that we are part of ecological processes to spiritual experiences.

Oh Scotland! Through spending time hill walking and mountain biking I developed a love of the hills.

My research found that being in the outdoors and nature is particularly important during childhood, especially repeated, frequent or prolonged (overnight or multi-day) experiences. This includes both ‘urban nature’ and in more remote places – ‘wild nature’. Nature experiences allowing for unstructured play and incorporating an element of risk are instrumental in building knowledge of and understanding nature, developing confidence and skills to interact with it and helping to form connections with nature and other people. These can in turn lead to pro-environmental behaviour development and further benefits for people and nature alike.

Nature: urban and wild

Unfortunately, children are spending less time in nature than ever before, becoming more sedentary and not having opportunities to intimately interact with nature. Thankfully, there are many advocates for nature play, particularly in Scandinavia (see clip below), but also elsewhere, such as the Elves and Fairies Woodland Nursey in England. In New Zealand, Celia Hogan of Little Kiwis Nature Play is currently campaigning for a law change to help facilitate full-time nature based education for early childhood centres (sign her petition here).

Spending time in nature is important for everyone, especially children. It’s also critical if we want to cultivate ecologically minded citizens who respect nature and understand the necessity for both protecting and enhancing it.

Kids Gone Wild – Denmark’s nature kindergartens – children whittling, climbing trees and playing outside. My favourite is the boy climbing a very high tree!

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