“Those who contemplate the beauty of nature will find reserves of strength that will last them as long as life lasts.” – Rachel Carson
A nature deficit
Nature is a place where there is space – space for children to run around, space to challenge yourself, space to slow down and breathe.
We spend much of our time indoors, though, leading to a ‘nature deficit’ in our day-to-day lives. This shortfall in time spent outdoors is particularly important to fill for children. In 2012 the National Trust found that children were half as likely to play outdoors than their parents had as children, and in 2015, the RSPB published a report warning that only 1 in 5 young people reported a connection with nature.
So, what is it that is so good about children being outdoors and playing and learning in nature?
Benefits of outdoor play
We are beginning to really understand how much good play in nature can do, with research revealing a range of benefits to getting outdoors. These include:
- Physical activity and health – Time in green spaces helps boost physical activity, which has been linked to better outcomes at school and general health. Outdoor play, and in particular play in nature, can also help develop children’s motor skills, core strength and their sensory systems, forming the foundation for a range of other skills.
- Stimulating curiosity and play – Natural environments are messy and ever changing; there is a lot of room for exploration, imagination and pushing new boundaries. Playing outdoors, children learn to assess risks and test their own limits. It’s unsurprising then that play in natural environments has been found to stimulate creativity and curiosity for the natural world; and that children in natural environments were found to play for longer and more creatively than in completely artificial playgrounds.
- Wellbeing and concentration – Nature is also good for general mental health and wellbeing. Simply taking a break in the natural environment can improve our mood and memory. This also applies to children – for example, one study found that children were better able to concentrate when living somewhere with access to green spaces.
- Connecting with nature – At a time when we are becoming increasingly aware of the urgency of caring for our planet, spending time in nature may help children understand it and care for it.
Play spaces – putting the outdoors back in cities
Play areas and community green spaces play a crucial role in helping children and young people get outdoors. But not all play areas are created equal. Studies have found that many adult-designed play spaces tend to lack nature.
I remember visiting a playground on a hot summer’s day last year with my toddling son. With not a tree in sight, the rubber flooring was scorching and the play equipment – all burning hot metal – was unusable. Bringing nature back to play areas not only has health benefits – increased sun protection and more physical activity – it can also encourage adventurous play (play where an element of risk is involved) and brings nature closer to home.
School’s out: Taking learning outdoors
Time for outdoor play and learning in school is often particularly tight. However, giving children a break and taking the classroom outdoors has a range of educational benefits. In studies where teachers were supported to teach outside, they reported better engagement of their students. These experiences allowed space for children to initiate their own learning, and students who were considered under-achieving were able to shine. Importantly, behaviours that were considered disruptive in the classroom – boisterousness and noise – were no longer problematic. The children hadn’t changed; the context had. For students who are at risk of disengaging with school, such opportunities to be outdoors could help invite them back into the classroom.
Schools have become increasingly aware of the benefits outdoor play can bring, as can be seen in the explosion of interest in Forest Schools – an outdoor learning model focused on hands-on experiences in forests and wooded areas. It’s important to note though that the benefits of this kind of learning aren’t just limited to the first few years of schooling (age 4-8) but can continue through childhood.
Equality and access to nature: We can do better
Whilst the benefits of spending time in nature are being increasingly recognised, we also know that not everyone is equally able to access green spaces – an issue that has only been made more obvious by the recent pandemic. In September 2019, the UK government published a report which showed that England’s national parks were predominantly visited by the “same, more well off, less diverse” people, at the exclusion of others. More can be done, and must be done, to tackle such inequalities. Small grassroots initiatives such as the Black to Nature Club provide a good example of what widening participation might look like, and recently the National Lottery Heritage Fund launched a review into equality and diversity within the organisation. Ultimately, everyone has a role to play – even if it is something as small as voicing our support for greater equality in access to nature.
Soizic Le Courtois
University of Cambridge PhD Student and former Primary School Teacher