The Nature of Play - Part One

What is Nature Play?

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The words ‘nature play’ might seem self-explanatory, but not everyone apprehends its power and potential for children, especially in the influential early years of development. In this 3-part blog series, we get adventurous to understand the what, why and how of nature play.

So, what is nature play? On the surface, it is unstructured play outdoors. But we are advocates of children, and students of play, so we must go deeper into the wild. Nature play is not only taking away the iPad and sending kids into the yard. Nature play is fulfilling a child’s right to a childhood of wonder, exploration and discovery. It is empowering children with curiosity and independence by offering them an environment with a full sensory experience. Such an environment reflects important life lessons, assisting children to understand the cause and effect of situations. What children can learn from nature play, sets them up for life. For example: when we fall down, we get hurt. If we put too much weight onto a tree branch, it breaks. If we throw a rock into a river, it disappears. These little nuggets of organic learning opportunities within nature are limitless because the parameters of nature are always changing; creating a synergistic awareness between ourselves and what is around us.

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction.
— Albert Einstein

Our commitment to children was set in stone in 1989 when the United Nations Convention created a treaty on the Rights of the Child. This framework began a global revolution, promising to protect and fulfil all children’s rights. At last, children became celebrated. As the landscape for childhood evolves, remembering children’s rights has become more important today than ever before. With sprawling cities, our addiction to social media, the increase of consumerism, lack of access to nature, and a growing list of priorities and distractions, spending time outdoors has become a chore rather than a natural way of resetting. CHANGE

Children are not the people of tomorrow but are people of today. They have a right to be taken seriously, and to be treated with tenderness and respect. They should be allowed to grow into whoever they were meant to be. The unknown person inside of them is our hope for the future.
— Janusz Korczak 

It’s hard to believe we have come to a point where being in nature is something we work hard to achieve. But with the help of children advocates like Nature Play Australia who are driving the education of outdoor play forward, more parents and educators are realising the inherent value of nature. Nature Play Australia’s mission begins with: For nature play to become a normal part of every child’s life. Since playing outside has become an activity we now normalise, the focus on outdoor play experiences has also increased; connecting children with nature through well-designed play environments. 

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Playground hero and nature play advocate Adam Bienenstock says, “But if you put out a log – a big fat log – that can be a car, that can be a locomotive, it can be an elephant, it can be whatever they come up with that day, or it could just be a log.” When children are outside, Adam knows creativity and imaginative play will be explored – regardless of whether they are on a playground. But as time poor parents with limited access to nature, (plus the fact that kids love playgrounds) a sustainable, well-designed natural play environment is a great vehicle for uninhibited outdoor play.

There has been talk in the media recently of toxic playgrounds, where recycled crumb rubber has become hazardous to children (mostly in the US). Parents are being advised that “children on playgrounds should avoid mouth contact with the surfacing materials, avoid eating and drinking on them, limit play on hot days and wash hands.” This is just one concern that highlights the importance of synthetic playgrounds being replaced by natural ones. Let’s return to fulfilling a child’s rights - how does a plastic experience compare to the real deal? If we compare the experience of a plastic orange to a real orange – we lose touch, smell, taste and joy. Amplify this to a synthetic playground compared to nature (or a natural playground), we are taking away the full sensory experience for a child, including self-managed risk assessment.

Nature acts as an arena for accomplishment by offering an abundance of healthy, manageable risks for children. Within nature and unstructured outdoor play lies boundless opportunities for development, alongside a sense of belonging and fulfilment. It’s a human right to have access to nature and a basic human need to feel as though we belong. Nature play offers this plus so much more to help children grow into curious, conscious, courageous future leaders.

In Part Two of The Nature of Play blog series, we explore the why of nature play and go deep into why now is the most important time to be bringing nature play into children’s lives.

Caitlin Murphy