Playing in nature supports children’s holistic development and benefits their physical, emotional and social wellbeing. Sensory capabilities are expanded as children’s natural wonder, awe and curiosity prompt them to explore their environment and make sense of the world around them.
Uneven ground, challenging obstacles and inviting green spaces provide opportunities to move freely and promote development of the vestibular system, needed for movement. This helps children coordinate their head movement with their eyes, use both sides of their body at the same time and improve their coordination and balance.
The proprioceptive system is also improved through nature play. Children’s brains gain information on their body in relation to their environment, allowing the development of spatial awareness.
This important development of physical skills is promoted in the outdoors where children receive a richer array of sensory experiences. Nature offers the perfect environment for children to develop all their senses.
Simply walking around in your outdoor area, you may feel sand, grass and woodchips under your feet; hear crows calling loudly to one another, see them sitting in a tree, their black bodies contrasted against the green foliage with sunlight filtering through the leaves. You may feel the breeze on your face and smell the herbs that you have disturbed in the garden as you push back the leaves to observe a snail slowly making it’s way across the decaying leaves underneath. Your brain processes all these sensory experiences- putting the whole experience together is called sensory integration. This skill is developed much easier outside due to constant variations in temperatures, textures and light levels. Indoors, your sight is far more limited by walls and artificial light provides little variation. Children develop more complex neural pathways as multiple senses are stimulated, increasing their ability to self-regulate their emotions and responses to sensory input.
Another physical benefit to outdoor play is that children’s immune systems are exposed to different environments and natural materials. Children who regularly play in natural settings with mud, sand, water and leaves get sick less often due to the immunity that has built up through time spent in the outdoors.
Spending time in nature also has proven benefits to mental health and has even been proven to reduce hyperactivity in children with ADHD. Spending time outdoors connected to nature reduces levels of cortisol in the brain, decreasing feelings of stress and anxiety and helping children to focus and regulate their emotions.
Nature play also develops children’s cognitive abilities and social skills as they explore their world, challenge themselves and interact with others. Conversations about insects, plants and animals improve language skills, help deepen relationships between educators and children and promote appreciation of nature.
Challenging natural spaces are irregular and promote risk assessment skills while building confidence and competence. Children can benefit from this at all different ages and stages, whether they are learning to pull themselves up on a wooden stump that wobbles or leaping across large gaps between rocks. These learning dispositions- curiosity, determination, problem solving and resilience, can all be developed through playing in nature.
Finally, childhood experiences in nature allow a strong appreciation of our natural world and this encourages environmental stewardship or natural activism later in life. Saving our planet is only important to those who see the beauty and wonder of nature and childhood is the perfect time to experience this as children are naturally filled with curiosity and awe.
By Michelle Marais