Climbing trees, jumping in leaf piles, or simply playing outside is an important part of childhood. Not only are the physical aspects of such activities important, being in nature benefits a child’s mental health and social development. In fact, many early-childhood settings are transforming their outdoor play environments to incorporate more natural elements.
Yet, little is known about the experiences of “nature-play end users”—such as early-childhood educators and parents—even though they are the ones responsible for facilitating nature play within early-childhood settings.
And, when you add “messy” or “risky” to what most consider to be “nature play,” the reactions from the people involved go to a whole new level, according to recent research from the University of South Australia.
Nature play is welcome
Nature play is well known for its positive effects on children’s health, social development and well-being. It helps improve emotional regulation, physical skills and learning outcomes; and it can encourage children to develop their creativity and imaginations.
And, indeed, for the most part, when researchers from the University of South Australia talked with early-childhood educators and parents—important gatekeepers when it comes to nature play—they almost universally said that they would happily open the door to “clean” and “safe” nature play. Educators and parents also described nature play as something that can help children form a connection with the natural world, learn about sustainable practices and be used to offset technology use, such as spending too much time with computer screens or watching TV.
However, the adults were more reluctant to let children engage in “messy” activities or nature play that could be perceived as “risky.”
Messy play is next-level
But despite the known benefits, caregivers and parents can find it difficult when it comes to engaging children in nature play if the activities are dirty or messy (such as mud or water play) or are thought of as being risky (such as climbing).
The educators who participated in the University of South Australia study mentioned that safety regulations and time restrictions limit what they choose as outdoor activities, especially when they know that they will need to change children’s clothes after muddy play, or when parents have expectations that their children will come home clean from childcare. That sets up a conflict between encouraging children to experience nature and what adults need to deal with in the aftermath.
Nearly 50 percent of Australia’s children aged 0 to 12 years (2 million) spend some time in formal or informal education care, with full day care being the most common type for children aged zero to four years. Given that such a large number of children are in some form of childcare setting, further education and training for both early-childhood educators and parents could help overcome some of the challenges that are linked with nature play.
Risky play is a different animal
Another aspect of nature play is particularly worrisome for educators and parents: risk.
Risky play, however, has its advantages. Engaging in risky play allows kids to experiment with pushing themselves out of their comfort zones to figure out what will happen if they do certain things. Risky play in early childhood can help develop a child’s resilience, self-confidence and even risk-assessment and risk-management skills. And, risky play can reduce the chances of injury, too.
Here are 10 strategies to help educators and parents embrace the messiness and risk associated with nature play:
1) Parents can make sure that their children have appropriate wet-weather gear (such as rain boots and rain jackets) with them. They should also have a spare set of clothes available.
2) Educators and parents can communicate with adults and children about the sensory benefits of mud and water play and how such activities are good for a child’s development.
3) Educators can invite parents to forums and open discussions on nature-play programming, risk assessments and play-space upgrades within their centers or schools.
4) To address the time constraints of educators, school leaders should revise schedules to create more dedicated time for nature play. Prioritizing it will ensure that it becomes a regular part of playtime.
5) School leaders should enhance training for educators on how to provide safe nature play experiences for children and build partnerships with local nature-play organizations, thus leveraging their expertise and resources.
6) During risky play, parents should focus on “as safe as necessary” rather than “as safe as possible.” For example, on a playground, things such as broken equipment or glass on the ground would be cause for parental intervention, whereas navigating a bush with thorns at eye level would be something that a child could participate in solving. Rather than removing the plant, assess the situation together. Have the child take stock of the thorns and then suggest ways to stay safe.
7) Parents can provide guidance on risks throughout the normal course of a day. When walking a child to school, for example, take time to point out potential dangers so that children gradually reach the stage where they have enough knowledge to stay safe. This builds confidence and prepares them for solo adventures.
8) Parents shouldn’t let their fears get in the way of giving their children freedom. Worries about injury, kidnapping or being perceived as a bad caregiver can drive many parents to intervene before their child can engage in any risk during play. Statistics vary, but several sources suggest that the odds of your child being kidnapped are about one in 300,000. To put that in perspective, the odds that a person will choke to death are around one in 3,400.
And, recent estimates show that children would need to spend about three hours per day playing, every day, for 10 years before they were likely to get an injury that needed treatment (and it would probably still be minor).
9) Parents should practice the 17-second rule. Instead of telling your child not to climb so high or run so fast while observing them at play, take a moment—or 17 seconds. Step back and see how your child is reacting to the situation so that you can get a better sense of what they’re capable of when you’re not getting in the way. This will provide them with the opportunity to figure out for themselves what’s comfortable and what they can do, while allowing them to develop risk-management skills.
10) This doesn’t mean that risky play is unsupervised play. As a parent, exercise your watchful eye; but rather than calling all the shots, support your children when they demonstrate how they want to play.
Psychological Room for Play Is Pivotal
The University of South Australia research reminds us that the time children have to engage in nature play is influenced by the other people in their lives. Parents need to carve out enough time to let children play the way they want to, without being limited by the mindsets of their guardians and the burden of voluminous extracurriculars. Kids need to feel like they have the latitude to experiment while playing.
Not only does good nature play require psychological space, it needs sufficient physical space, too. In the typical North American playground, equipment is fixed in the ground, and the options for play are limited; there is only so much you can do with monkey bars, slides or swings. Instead of such structures, providing loose materials—such as crates, logs, mud, planks, ropes, sticks, tarps and even water—will encourage more creative play.
Now, when screens threaten to consume the majority of children’s attentions, it’s vital that we offer kids all the opportunities we can for them to play in nature, whether it’s clean or dirty, safe or somewhat risky.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,