Children have the most wonderful natural sense of wonder and the most effective way for young children to learn about themselves and the world around them is through play (Wilson, 2018). Children play instinctively with natural elements; they are natural experts and combining nature and play in the lives of young children has many benefits (Lester & Maudsley, 2007). Nature play provides children with a connection to the natural world and the freedom to the purposefully engage and learn in play through their instincts to move, explore, invent, create, make and experiment (Robinson, Treasure, O’Connor, Neylon, Harrison & Wynne, 2018). There is substantial evidence that supports the wide-ranging values and benefits arising from children’s play in natural settings (Lester & Maudsley, 2007); physical health, emotional, personal, social, cognitive, language and spiritual benefits are all linked to nature play (Wilson, 2018; Lester & Murphy, 2007; Robinson et. al, 2018; Rushton, Juola-Rushton & Larkin, 2010; O’Connor, 2014; Kappos, 2007.)
Supportive Policy Frameworks
Nature Play WA has been at the forefront of the movement to reconnect our children with nature (Robinson et. al, 2018) as children’s free play time has been continually declining and more so their time to play in nature causing increasing in sensory and mental health issues (Francis, Paige & Lloyd, 2013 and Agate & Clark, 2011). Although Nature Play is not a new concept, there is now a strong push for educators to focus on the development of Nature play in their planning (Robinson et. al, 2018) and the policy frameworks support it.
In the National Quality Standards (2020), Standard 3.1/ 3.2/ 3.2.1/ 3.2.2/3.2.3 in Physical Environment discusses quality experiences in natural environments and supports children to become environmentally responsible. Furthermore, the Early Years Learning Framework quotes ‘Practice in play and intentional teaching ‘. Each outcome describes links to Nature Play; Outcome 1- Children have a strong sense of identity – Confidently explore and engage with social and physical environments through relationships and play. Outcome 2 – Children are connected with and contribute to their world – Develop an awareness of the impact of human activity on environments and the interdependence of living things. Outcome 3 – Children have a strong sense of well-being- Use their sensory capabilities and dispositions with increasing integration, skill and purpose to explore and respond to their world. Outcome 4 – Children are confident and involved learners – Express wonder and interest in their environments. Outcome 5 – Children are effective communicators – Begin to sort, categorise, order and compare collections and events and attributes of objects and materials, in their social and natural worlds (Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations [DEEWR] (2009).
Australian Curriculum also has supportive documentation; the following examples are Pre-Primary focused and are possible curriculum links to Nature Play and the Nature Pedagogy; Science- Science as a Human Endeavour: Science involves exploring and observing the world using the senses (ACSHE013); Humanities-Geographical Inquiry and Skills: Observing, questioning and planning and make observations about familiar places and pose questions about them (ACHGS001); Mathematics- Measurement and Geometry- Using units of measurement and use direct and indirect comparisons to decide which is longer, heavier or holds more, and explain reasoning in everyday language (ACMMG006); English- Language: Language for interaction by understanding that language can be used to explore ways of expressing needs, likes and dislikes; English- Literacy: Interacting with others by using interaction skills including listening while others speak, using appropriate voice levels, articulation and body language, gestures and eye contact (ACELY1784) (Wynne, S. & Gorman, R. 2015 and Australian Curriculum Assessment and Reporting Authority [ACARA]. 2013). Lastly, The United Nations Convention of the Rights of a Child article 31 states ‘the right of the child to rest, leisure, play, recreational activities, cultural life and the arts.’ All these policy frameworks have integrated links to Nature Play and hope to increase Nature Play at school.
Different types of play
Natural environments have traditionally been a place for children’s play. Numerous studies have highlighted the rich potential in natural spaces to engage children across the full range of play types, such as Sensory, Risky, Imaginative and Movement Play (Lester & Murphy, 2007).
Risky Play, also known as ‘deep play’, is a type of play which supports children to encounter and overcome challenges (Robinson et. al, 2018). Recent research indicates that risk competence and perception can be improved through the learning environment (Lavrysen, Bertrands, Leyssen, Smets, Vanderspikken & De Graef. 2017 & Gill, 2007). Children approach the world around them through play; they are driven by curiosity and a need for excitement; they rehearse handling real-life risky situations through play and they discover what is safe and not (Gill, 2007). Through experiencing risk situations, children gain a broad perceptual memory of both the level of risk involved in different situations and what actions are necessary to handle the risk in an appropriate way (Waller, Ärlemalm-Hagsér, Sandseter, Lee-Hammond, Lekies, & Wyver, 2017).Through risk-taking in play, children show increased physical activity, improved motor and spatial skills, as well as learning risk assessment and risk mastery (Waller, 2017).
The natural environment also lends itself as a rich back drop to a child’s imagination and fantasy, and there is a multitude of affective opportunities for engagement, surprise and discovery to be found in children’s stories, myths and fables (Lester & Murphy, 2007). The research suggests the diverse, dynamic and flexible features that can be found in natural spaces afford opportunities for extensive intentional play behaviours (Robinson et. al, 2018). Through Imaginative Play in natural spaces they are possibilities for control and mastery, construction of special spaces, manipulating loose parts and different ways of moving (Lester & Murphy, 2007). Childhood experiences of playing with nature also instil a sense of wonder, stimulating creativity, imagination and symbolic play (Lester & Murphy, 2007 & Wilson, 2012).
Children’s opportunities to playfully access their immediate natural environments support the development of a sense of place and attachment (Lester & Murphy, 2007). Playing in natural spaces also supports a child’s sense of self, allowing children to recognise their independence (Robinson et. al, 2018). The powerful combination of a diversity of play experiences and direct contact with nature has direct benefits for children’s physical, mental and emotional health (Wilson, 2018). Playful, experiential and interactive contact with nature in childhood is directly correlated with positive environmental sensibility and behaviour in later life (Lester & Murphy, 2007).
Discovery learning, experimentation, inquiry and problem solving
Children really need opportunities for creative, exploratory play in stress-free environments, especially in nature without restrictions on time or freedom (Lester & Murphy, 2007). Our students learn almost everything they need to know about life through play, from physical coordination, decision-making and problem solving to empathy and social and emotional skills (Gibson, 2007 & Lester & Murphy, 2007). There is clear and consistent evidence about the many benefits for children and the wider community from exposure to and engagement with nature (Lester & Murphy, 2007). Ability to engage in greater diversity of exploratory actions predicts greater success in problem solving. (Gibson, 200).
Evidence suggests that the return to nature-based playgrounds will enhance children’s sense of belonging in our world in a deep and profound way (Wilson, 2018; Lester & Murphy, 2007; Robinson et. al, 2018; Rushton, Juola-Rushton & Larkin, 2010; O’Connor, 2014; Kappos, 2007). Mental illness has a core layer of separation, and spiritual intelligence can be nurtured by a strong connection to Nature (Robinson et al, 2018 & Lester & Maudsley, 2007).To create a sustainable world where all individuals value and take care of our natural resources, we need to firstly have a relationship to nature and the real world ourselves (Zimmerman & McClain, 2016).
The supporting pedagogies of Nature include Rushton, Juola-Rushton & Larkin’s (2010) study ‘Supportive neuroscience’, Singer, Golinkoff & Hirsh-Pasek, (2006) research in ‘Higher level of thinking’ and O’Connor’s (2014) ‘Creativity and Mental Benefits’ all suggest the value children in nature. This compiled with Garvis & Pendergast’s (2014) study into ‘Stress and social interactions’, Elkind’s (2012) ‘Societal changes’ research and Gibson’s (1986) report into ‘Afforandances’ link Nature as an incredibly important factor in pedagogies to support our children’s wellbeing. The notion of ‘affordance’ features prominently in environmental research into relationships between humans and their environments and leads into the relational pedagogies.
The most current Relational pedagogies link to the Rights-based perspective, Socio-cultural theory, Reggio Inspired practices all in association with the policy frameworks discussed earlier, such as the Early Years Learning Framework, the National Quality Standards, the Australian Curriculum and The United Nations Rights of a Child documents. Furthermore, these documents are all linked to the play pedagogy which can be seen highlighted through all Nature and Relational pedagogies and is the main driver on children’s wellbeing in Early Childhood.
Evaluation of Playground
Hammond Park Catholic Primary School has two outdoor classrooms, surrounding bush play areas and multiple playgrounds. I am privileged to be working in a play-based learning environment with a Bush Play program. The students love it and learn how to respect and care for their environment as sustainability as a large focus of the school. The principal has introduced two nature play areas one for K-2 and one for Years 3 and above.
The Play spaces are in natural environments which include plants, trees, edible gardens, sand, rocks, mud, water and other elements in nature similar to Robinson et. al (2018) suggestions for surfaces, textures and opportunities for messy play and supported by (Department of Education and Training, 2020). Elliot, S (editor) 2008. These spaces invite open-ended interactions, spontaneity, risk-taking, exploration, discovery and connection with nature, all reinforced by Lavrysen, Bertrands, Leyssen, Smets, Vanderspikken & De Graef (2017), Gill (2007), Waller (2017) and Wilson (2018). They foster an appreciation of the natural environment, develop environmental awareness and provide a platform for ongoing environmental education which is highly recommended by Nature Play WA (Robinson et. al, 2018).
We found students playground behaviour has improved noticeably with students playing together more, cooperating in their play, being more engaged in their play, taking more risks and being calmer in classrooms similar to Lester & Maudsley (2007) studies. As Lavrysen et. al (2017) discussed this physical activity actually improves self-regulation and concentration and so learning is improving. Another great gift that has happened is that parents and teachers have worked together positively to create these playgrounds and so school culture has also become more cohesive and cooperative.
The key characteristics of the Hammond Park Catholic Primary School natural playground are the use of natural products like sand, water, logs and rocks which links to Robinson et. al (2018) suggestions. There are differing heights and levels of the ground – the students love the hills as they allow children the opportunity to investigate and explore freely. There is no fixed purpose to achieve as supported by Wilson (2018) and some of the areas are hidden behind shrubs and small barriers again suggested by Robinson et al (2018) ideas of secret spaces. There are also bridges, walkways and tunnels that take children from one place to another.
The waterways are purely magical to children, not just to look at but to interact with and opportunities for children to climb and to swing with their body weight which is recommended in Wilson’s (2018) study. There are spaces to run freely and the students have the ability to move things around with no pressure to keep things neat and tidy which is highly endorsed by Francis, Paige & Lloyd, 2013 and Agate & Clark, 2011. The whole school curriculum is woven closely with the natural world and real experiences as Nature Play WA’s movement suggests (Robinson et. al, 2018). This massive immersion in the natural world not only allows the students to grow healthy on all levels, it allows them to develop a respectful consciousness around the environment and their place in it, as discussed in a multitude of studies (Wilson, 2018; Lester & Murphy, 2007; Robinson et. al, 2018; Rushton, Juola-Rushton & Larkin, 2010; O’Connor, 2014; Kappos, 2007; Zimmerman & McClain, 2016).
Extensive research indicates that opportunities for children to access and play freely in natural spaces are currently seriously compromised, due to a variety of interconnected factors including adult influences (Lester & Murphy, 2007, Francis, Paige & Lloyd, 2013 & Agate & Clark, 2011). Hence, I would enhance the Hammond Park Catholic Primary School in five new ways to encourage more interactions in these already amazingly designed outdoor playgrounds; Bush Sustainability, Affordance in Nature Play, Risk Taking, Exploration and more Natural Elements.
Lester & Murphy (2007) suggest poor environmental quality can negatively affect children’s play behaviours and may distort the ways in which children instinctively interact with natural elements and environments. As discussed in the Victorian Department of Education and Training (2020) teacher must support children to connect and contribute to their world. This requires educators to help children to develop an awareness of the impact of human activity on the environment and the interdependence of living things (Munoz, 2009). Hence, Hammond Park CPS sustainability focus should be allocated to not only particular year levels but as a whole school initiative, which is supported by Zimmerman & McClain (2016).
Affordance in Nature Play
The affordance of the natural environment is notably through trees and bushes which are highly flexible and present a complexity of possibilities (Lester & Murphy, 2007). Gibson (2000) suggest the ability to engage in greater diversity of exploratory actions predicts greater success in problem solving. Hence, an affordance of student’s ability to problem solve in their Bush Play program in more spaces then currently allocated. Each year level has an area, however, I feel with a more flexible approach to areas these settings may offer different opportunities and affordances for risky play (Lavrysen et. al 2017 & Waller, 2017). For example, in Kindy, the negotiating of a sloping surface by backing and sliding rather than just mud area and sandpits. The varieties of these environments, along with the lack of close adult supervision can provide greater potential for creative and constructive play rather than the current over supervised and allocated environments (Lester & Murphy, 2007).
Waller (2017) suggest children gain many benefits as a side-effect of being given the chance to undertake activities with a degree of risk. For instance, risks that are greatly outweighed by the health and developmental benefits should be advocated for in outdoor playground environments (Waller, 2017). Similar arguments are made by teachers who call for a greater degree of self-directed learning opportunities, especially in the early years and in the school curriculum (Waller, 2017). Gill (2017) describes risks are what children build their character and personality through. They face up to adverse circumstances where they know there is the possibility of injury or loss are this creates resilience and self-reliance (Waller, 2017). An example of this could be a part of the Hammond Park CPS Bush Play where an the affordance can be to climb trees. Climbing can be judged by the children as fun and exciting and when they know that they could fall or hurt themselves they can accept this risk or choose a safer route (Lavrysen, 2017 & Waller, 2017).
Lester & Murphy (2007) state exploration helps children develop wayfaring skills and provides time and space away from adults. Children develop positive attitudes towards the places they explore because these are places in which they are least inhibited (Lester & Murphy, 2007). Our current natural play spaces provide rich opportunities for children to explore new ideas and to develop their interests and understanding like gaining a sense of freedom and the ability to explore and to learn the skills required to manage self-risk (Department of Education and Training, 2020). However, I feel an extension of this could be exploration into ‘wild areas’ which provide a rich developmental landscape. These natural environments can be dynamic, complex and often disorderly with protruding rocks and tree roots, fallen trees, low-hanging branches, streams without bridges, and many geologic variations providing exciting psychomotor challenges (Lester & Murphy, 2007).
Currently our natural environments including sandpits for sensory, symbolic and physical play, vegetable gardens, digging patches where children can use garden equipment, small pits of pebbles, gravel, course sand and smooth river rocks for fine motor and imaginative play, trees which provide shade, water play areas for sensory play and worm farms and compost areas for environmental education. These are all amazing outdoor playground spaces and I would like to increase the amount of natural elements by affording a range of planting opportunities, chosen by the students and conducted by them, of planting plants for smelling and picking or planting plants that encourages birds, butterflies and other insects as suggested by the Department of Education and Training (2020) and Elliot (2008).