Researchers in Australia recently examined whether the current popularity and perceived benefits of nature play are justified by any scientific evidence.
Nature play is an increasingly popular design theme for children’s playgrounds. Whereas traditional playgrounds consist of equipment such as slides and swings, nature play playgrounds are full of natural components such as rocks, ponds, gardens, and trees. The reasoning behind nature play is that a more natural and unstructured setting will encourage children to do more physical activity, and also help them to become more psychologically and socially strong. Studies on nature play have found that it has a positive impact on children with respect to cognitive and social development, academic performance, and mental health.
With this background in mind, Australian researchers have performed the first systematic review of the body of research on nature play. Specifically, the researchers’ goal was to determine if there were truly benefits of nature play for children.
First-ever review of nature play studies
To find as many studies as possible, the researchers searched seven databases: MEDLINE, ERIC, Embase, PsycINFO, The Cochrane Library, The Joanna Briggs Institute, and Emcare. Specifically, they searched for studies on nature play that met the following criteria:
1. Population of children aged 2–12 years, without any health or developmental issues.
2. Examined unstructured, free play in a natural environment (e.g. forests, gardens, outdoor spaces)
3. That the natural environments in these studies had actual natural elements (e.g. vegetation, rocks, mud, sand, water)
From this search, covering 2,927 peer-reviewed studies, the reviewers found 16 studies that matched these criteria.
Benefits of nature play confirmed
The review found a variety of benefits of nature play. These included improvements in:
- Physical activity levels
- Motor skills
- Social and emotional development
The researchers’ review also found that nature play may produce improvements in:
- Cognitive and learning outcomes, (e.g. attention span and concentration)
- Settling in class, including after play times
- Constructive play
- Social play
- Imaginative and functional play
Study limitations precluded meta-analysis
The researchers noted the following limitations of their review, which were quite significant. Some of the reviewed studies may have quality issues (e.g. sampling methods), while most did not state specifically if the children had any pre-existing medical conditions. Furthermore, studies were difficult to compare, as each study focused on measuring a unique set of benefits; thus, a true meta-analysis was not possible. Instead, the researchers compared the 16 studies descriptively. Due to the fact that some of the reviewed studies were from countries where English was not the first language, there may have been some language bias.
Nature play may have benefits, but strong future studies are needed
Because of the many methodological issues with this review, any conclusions on the benefits of nature play can only be made with great caution. What is needed are future nature play studies that are strongly and rigorously designed and conducted. A universal definition of what constitutes nature play would be a positive first step in this process.
Written by Raymond Quan
Dankiw KA, Tsiros MD, Baldock KL, Kumar S (2020) “The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review.” PLOS ONE 15(2): e0229006. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0229006
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