What is Nature Play?
Here at the Kerry Wood Nature Centre, our definition of nature play is play that is:
- Outside: Playing with nature, not just in nature.
- Unsupervised: Amount of direct or indirect adult supervision is age-dependent and may also vary by individual, but in general we strive for as little adult supervision as possible.
- Unstructured: Play is free-form and there may not be any measurable objectives or rules.
- Risky: Physical risks may include playing with heights, high speeds, tools, elements (e.g., fire, wind, water), a chance of getting lost, and rough-and-tumble play. Risky play can also involve social risks such as the risk of embarrassment.
- Risk is the possibility of loss or injury. Risk can be assessed, evaluated, and managed.
- Hazard is a source of danger. A hazard needs to be identified, controlled, and potentially, removed.
- Danger is the possibility of something happening that will injure, harm, or kill somebody, or damage or destroy something.
- Note the difference between risky play (e.g., challenging a friend to a skating race around the rink) and hazardous play (e.g., skating without a helmet or skating on thin ice)—we accept risk because there is a learning benefit to managing risk, but there is no way to manage a hazard in a way that provides a learning benefit.
Why Nature Play?
Think back on a favourite childhood memory. Chances are it checks one or more of the boxes of our definition of nature play: outside, unsupervised, unstructured, risky.
Also, remember how nice it was to not have an overpacked schedule when everything suddenly got cancelled in March 2020 due to the pandemic? Why not keep some of that freedom in your family’s schedule even as things return to normal?
The benefits of allowing children and youth to engage in nature play are nearly limitless, and include improved physical, mental, emotional, and social health.
Nature play can lead to improved:
- emotional regulation;
- stress management;
- ability to cope with anxiety;
- problem-solving abilities;
- ability to communicate ideas clearly;
- ability to negotiate and resolve conflicts;
- risk-management skills;
- intrinsic motivation; and
- appreciation for delayed gratification.
Still not convinced? A diverse group of 21 Canadian experts, representing 17 organizations, convened to examine the best available evidence on the net effect (i.e., balance of benefits vs. harms) of outdoor and risky active play, and to develop an evidence-informed position statement.
Their final Position Statement on Active Outdoor Play states:
“Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.”
Read the full text at https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/12/6/6475/htm or read Supplementary File 2, which is only a couple pages long and contains the position statement with evidence material: https://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/12/6/6475#supplementary .
5 tips to implement nature play
1. Provide time, freedom, and space.
Give your kids a space where they are free to do whatever they want, and create a “go-bag” with miscellaneous loose parts. Neither the space nor the go-bag need to be anything fancy or expensive.
The space can simply be a corner of the yard or a part of the forest down the street where children are free to dig holes, build a fort, look for bugs, and do science experiments. The go-bag can include items like clean yogurt containers, old cutlery, and twine.
2. Let the child lead.
Let the child choose what type of play to initiate or to abandon; remember that play is voluntary. Be aware of the stages of play you are likely to encounter, and let them unfold naturally: solitary play, onlooker play, parallel play, associative play, and cooperative play.
3. Be as safe as necessary, not as safe as possible.
Offer guidance when helping children navigate a new risk, but intervene as a last resort. The goal is for children to learn how to manage risk in incremental jumps throughout childhood and adolescence.
4. Don’t let your own fears get in the way.
Suggestions for parents and caregivers that are nervous about introducing unsupervised play:
- Start by continuing to directly supervise your child’s play, but spend as long as possible just watching, without interfering or saying anything. How your child plays without your interference will likely be how they play without your supervision.
- Slowly decrease the amount of direct supervision you impose on your child. Maybe the first step is to move your chair slightly further away from the play area, then do a task like watering the plants outside while your child plays outside, then sit inside while watching through the window, then do an indoor task like the dishes and check through the window every couple minutes, then every 10 minutes, and so on.
5. There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes.
Different weather conditions are a bonus, not a drawback! Dress appropriately for conditions that are wet, snowy, cold, or hot.
Safety note: thunder and lightning, or strong winds that blow debris into the air should be enjoyed from an indoor location. In other words, these are hazards, not risks.
Online Resources & References