Children need outdoor play to develop an appreciation of nature

tour special needs family

A growing body of literature shows that the natural environment has profound effects on the well-being of adults, including better psychological well-being, superior cognitive functioning, fewer physical ailments and speedier recovery from illness.

It is widely accepted that the environment is likely to have a more profound effect on children due to their greater plasticity or vulnerability.

Research is providing convincing evidence of the significant benefits of experiences in nature to children.

Findings include:

• Children with symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) are better able to concentrate after contact with nature.

• Children with views of and contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The greener, the better the scores.

• Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often.

• When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse with imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills.

• Exposure to natural environments improves children's cognitive development by improving their awareness, reasoning and observational skills.

• Nature buffers the impact of life stress on children and helps them deal with adversity. The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits.

• Play in a diverse natural environment reduces or eliminates bullying.

• Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity and instills a sense of peace and being at one with the world.

• Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder. Wonder is an important motivator for life long learning.

• Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other.

• Natural environments stimulate social interaction between children).

• Outdoor environments are important to children's development of independence and autonomy.

Note: These findings are consistent with the literature showing the benefits of nature to adults.

Almost 150 years ago, nineteenth century psychologist Herbert Spencer published his book, Principals of Psychology, in which he espoused the "surplus energy theory," explaining that the main reason for children's play is to get rid of surplus energy. Although his theory has been rejected by researchers and developmental theorists, it has had a lasting and unfortunate influence on the design of children's outdoor school environments.

As a result of Spencer's theory, schoolyards are seen as areas for physical play during recess and for sport, where children ‘burn off steam’ , and not for the other domains of development or for learning. In schools, playgrounds typically have manufactured climbing equipment and sports fields, and other than manicured grass, are void of nature and vegetation. The schoolyards for multitudes of children are not green, but gray , many analogous to a parking lot.

School designers’ and administrators’ point-of-view that schoolyards should be designed for surveillance of students, ease of maintenance and to have a break from children, rather than stimulate the children themselves, has also contributed to the barren design of schoolgrounds where there is neither shade, shelter nor opportunities to interact with nature.

Schoolyard design also reflects a lack of understanding of how quality outdoor play environments can provide children rich educational opportunities, particularly in the area of social skills and environmental learning.

Roger Hart, a noted developmental psychologist, attributes much of the problem to an underestimation of the importance of play to children; that it is considered discretionary rather than essential to child development, and that this misguided concept of play has trickled down into the play areas we create for children, resulting in lackluster environments with little value.

Human nature itself has also helped perpetuate this design paradigm. We are all creatures of our experience, and our common experiences usually shape the conventional wisdom, or paradigms, by which we operate. When most adults were children, schoolyards were asphalt areas with manufactured, fixed playground equipment such as swings, jungle gyms and slides, and sports fields, where they went for recess. So most adults see this as the appropriate model for a schoolyard.

Children's History of Contact with Nature

It wasn't until recent history that most people lived in cities. But even until very recent history, children still grew up with intimate contact with nature.

For most of history, when children were free to play, their first choice was often to flee to the nearest wild place - whether it was big tree or brushy area in the yard or a watercourse or woodland nearby.

Two hundred years ago, most children spent their days surrounded by fields, farms or in the wild nature at its edges. By the late twentieth century, many children's environments had become urbanized.

But even then, as recently as 1970, children had access to nature and the world at large. They spent the bulk of their recreation time outdoors, using the sidewalks, streets, playgrounds, parks, greenways, vacant lots and other spaces "left over" during the urbanization process or the fields, forests, streams and yards of suburbia. Children had the freedom to play, explore and interact with the natural world with little or no restriction or supervision.

Children's Extinction of Experience

The lives of children today are much different. Children today have few opportunities for free play and regular contact with the natural world. Their physical boundaries have shrunk due to a number of factors. A ‘culture of fear’ has parents afraid for their children's safety.

Due to ‘stranger danger’ , many children are no longer free to roam their neighborhoods or even their own yards unless accompanied by adults. Many working families can't supervise their children after school, giving rise to latchkey children who stay indoors or attend supervised after-school activities. Furthermore, children's lives have become structured and scheduled by adults, who hold the mistaken belief that this sport or that lesson will make their children more successful as adults.

The culture of childhood that played outside is gone and children's everyday life has shifted to the indoors. As a result, children's opportunity for direct and spontaneous contact with nature is a vanishing experience of childhood. One researcher has gone so far as to refer to this sudden shift in children's lives and their loss of free play in the outdoors as a ‘childhood of imprisonment’ . Childhood and regular play in the natural world is no longer synonymous

Kellert says society today has become "so estranged from its natural origins, it has failed to recognize our species’ basic dependence on nature as a condition of growth and development."

Not only have children's play environments dramatically changed in the last few decades, but also the time they have to play has decreased. Between 1981 and 1997, the amount of time children ages 6 to 8 in the U.S. played decreased 25%, by almost four hours per week, from 15 hours a week to 11 hours and 10 minutes. During the same period, the time they spent in school increased by almost 5 hours.

Mediated Experience

Today, with children's lives disconnected from the natural world, their experiences are predominately mediated in media, written language and visual images. The virtual is replacing the real. TV, nature documentaries, National Geographic and other nature channels and environmental fundraising appeals are conditioning children to think that nature is exotic, awe-inspiring and in far, far away, places they will never experience. Children are losing the understanding that nature exists in their own backyards and neighborhoods, which further disconnects them from knowledge and appreciation of the natural world.

Loss of Contact with Nature is Nature's Loss

Not only does the loss of children's contact with the natural world negatively impact the growth and development of the whole child and their acquisition of knowledge, it also sets the stage for a continuing loss of the natural environment. The alternative to future generations who value nature is the continued exploitation and destruction of nature. Research is clearly substantiating that an affinity to and love of nature, along with a positive environmental ethic, grow out of children's regular contact with and play in the natural world.

Schoolyards Offer Hope

With children's access to the natural world becoming increasingly limited, schools, where children spend 40 to 50 hours per week, may be mankind's last opportunity to reconnect children with the natural world and create a future generation that values and preserves nature. Many authorities believe the window of opportunity for the formation of bonding with and positive attitudes towards the natural environment develops sometime during early and middle childhood and requires regular interaction with nearby nature

Premature Abstraction Breeds Biophobia

The problem with most school environmental education programs is that they approach education from an adult's, rather than a child's perspective. Children's curiosity with the natural world and unique way of knowing requires discovery and exploratory learning, rather than a pure didactic approach. One of the main problems with most environmental education is premature abstraction, teaching children too abstractly. One result of trying to teach to children at too early of an age about abstract concepts like rainforest destruction, acid rain, ozone holes and whale hunting can be dissociation. When we ask children to deal with problems beyond their cognitive abilities, understanding and control, they can become anxious, tune out and develop a phobia to the issues. In the case of environmental issues, biophobia - a fear of the natural world and ecological problems - a fear of just being outside - can develop. Studying about the loss of rainforests and endangered species may be perfectly age appropriate starting in middle school, but is developmentally inappropriate for early grade school.

John Burroughs cautioned that, "Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow." The problem with most environmental education programs is that they try to impart knowledge and responsibility before children have been allowed to develop a loving relationship with the earth. Children's emotional and affective values of nature develop earlier than their abstract, logical and rational perspectives. We need to allow children to develop their biophilia, their love for the Earth, before we ask them to save it. Rather then books and lectures, nature itself is children's best teacher. The more personal children's experience with nature, the more environmentally concerned and active children are likely to become.

The Greening of Schoolyards

Fortunately, there is a growing movement with schools in the Western world to transform parts of their schoolyards from barren areas of grass, asphalt, and wood chips with manmade equipment into naturalized environments for children's exploration and play, that also supports classroom learning. One program, Learning Through Landscapes, set out in the 1980's to transform all the schoolyards in Britain. Additional programs are underway in Canada , Australia Scotland and Sweden. In the U.S., there is a growing natural schoolyard movement to reconnect children with nature. States, including Maryland, California, Ohio, Florida, New Hampshire, Utah and Vermont have initiated greening programs. These natural schoolyards include mini-forest, ‘wild habitats’ , ponds and streams, butterfly gardens, insects, animals and gardening areas. Many of these programs take the approach of using both place-based and project-based education to both integrate their naturalized schoolyards into the full curriculum and for environmental learning, making the schoolyards extensions of the classroom where experiential learning through discovery and hands-on experiences with nature can take place both during and outside of classroom time.

Benefits of Naturalize Schoolyards

Research on natural schoolyards is demonstrating the broad benefits this paradigm shift in schoolyard design and teaching has in addition to the developmental benefits of offering children play and learning in naturalized environments. Children learn by constructing their own knowledge about the world, not by memorizing facts. Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner says that scholastic knowledge "seems strictly bound to school settings," while outdoor education fosters "connected knowing," where education is part of, rather than separate from life. Sobel on children's development of environmental stewardship values, and the greater the diversity of the natural landscapes, the greater children's appreciation of nature and experiences in it. Malone and Tranter found that the schoolyards most conductive to environmental learning were unstructured, e.g., forest areas, not specifically designed for children's play. The combination of both formal learning and informal, positive experiences in the naturalized environments where found most associated with the development of children's responsible behaviors. A study of ten schools and a statewide program by the National Environmental Education and Training Foundation found that when schools use the context of local areas and naturalized schoolyards in their instructional practices, academic performance improves in reading, math, science, social studies and writing. A study of 40 schools in California that used the natural environment as "an integrated context of learning" with hands-on, project-based learning found that student performance improved in standardized test scores, grade point average, willingness to stay on task, adaptability of different learning styles and problem solving. Studies also show a reduction in anti-social behavior such as violence, bullying, vandalism and littering a drop in absenteeism.


Children and society as a whole can benefit significantly by maximizing both the informal play and formal learning opportunities that natural schoolyards offer children. Nature schoolyards are places where children can reclaim the magic that is their birthright, the ability to learn in their unique experiential way through exploration and discovery in the natural world. When natural schoolyards are also integrated with the full curriculum, they enhance both children's academic and environmental education. But perhaps even more important, natural schoolyards offer the hope that future generations will develop the environmental values to become stewards of the Earth and the diversity of Nature.

Endangered Species
: Wild and Rare (Ranger Rick's Nature scope) by the National Wildlife Federation. While making a panda pal and playing Wheel of Trouble, kids learn all about endangered species.

Nineteen indoor and outdoor activities teach them which species are in danger; why all animals, plants and insects must be protected; the causes and consequences of habit destruction and loss; and what can be done to make a difference.

Take It Personally
: How to Make Conscious Choices to Change the World by Anita Roddick.

Consumers have been outraged to learn of the Gap's sweat shops and the young children who assemble Nike running shoes.

Take It Personally is a call to action to change business practices that hurt workers, children, animals, and environment.

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