Nature and Children

Photo by Unsplash user:  Scott Webb

Photo by Unsplash user: Scott Webb

Ming Kuo, writing in the June 7, 2019 edition of Greater Good Magazine, talks about how spending time nature helps children do better in school in a number of surprising ways. She references Ricard Louv, who wrote in his book Last Child in the Woods that kids were spending so little time in nature that they had “nature deficit disorder” leading to consequences such as increased stress and anxiety, higher rates of obesity and ADHD, and more.  Whilst parents worry that outside time may impact negatively on study time and academic success, Kuo notes that there is increasing research evidence that the reverse may actually be the case.  “Even small doses of nature can have profound benefits,” she says.

The evidence coming from hundreds of studies shows a number of benefits.  Some particular examples Kuo mentions are:

  • In one study, fifth-grade students attended school regularly at a local prairie wetlands, where science, math, and writing were taught in an integrated, experiential way as students participated in onsite research. When compared to peers attending regular schools, those who’d attended school outside had significantly stronger reading and writing skills (as measured by standardized tests) and reported feeling more excited about school because of the experience. Students at the outdoor school who’d previously had low attendance rates ended up with higher attendance, too.

  • One study found that students at schools with more tree cover performed better academically—especially if they came from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

  • Another compared students randomly assigned to take science lessons either in a classroom or in a school garden and found outdoor lessons more effective for learning—and the more time they spent in the garden, the greater their gains.


Kuo goes on to discuss a number of ways in which green space and nature have been demonstrated to benefit learning:

  • Nature restores children’s attention:  Spending time in nature (e.g. taking a walk in a park, or even having a view of nature out the window) helps restore children’s attention, allowing them to concentrate and perform better on cognitive tests.

  • Nature helps to relieve children’s stress:  Studies have found that holding a class outdoors one day a week can significantly improve the daily cortisol patterns of students—reflecting less stress and better adaptation to stress—when compared to kids with indoor-only instruction.

  • Nature helps children develop more self-discipline:  Parents of children with ADHD report that when their children participate in activities outdoors versus indoors, it reduces their ADHD symptoms (e.g. impulse control).

  • Outdoor instruction makes students more engaged and interested:  Research seems to suggest that kids are more engaged in learning not only during outdoor classes but also upon returning to their classroom afterward—even if the subject they return to is not nature-related.

  • Time outdoors may increase physical fitness:  Though it’s not clear that nature affects physical fitness directly, it is true that the more time kids spend in nature, the better their cardiorespiratory fitness.

  • Nature settings may promote social connection and creativity:  Letting kids spend time in settings with natural elements or giving them structured nature experiences can make for a calmer, socially safe, and fun learning environment. And being outdoors can also enhance peer-to-peer relationships and student/teacher relationships needed for learning, even for students who otherwise feel marginalized socially.  Some argue that nature provides a rich tapestry of “loose parts”—sticks, stones, mud—that encourage pretend play and exploration, creativity and problem solving. Indeed, teachers’ and principals’ observations suggest that children’s play becomes strikingly more creative, physically active, and social in the presence of loose parts.  

Addressing the needs of children 0-6, The Lawson Foundation have recently published (2019) a discussion paper on Advancing Outdoor Play and Early Childhood Education which looks both at benefits of outdoor play and challenges to implementation, expressing concern that:  “Post-secondary education and training do not tend to prepare early childhood educators for outdoor play.  While professional development is emerging to fill the gap, demand is increasing quickly; multiple sectors require various levels of education and training to support early childhood education, particularly in regards to understanding and managing risk.  At the same time, early childhood education policies and practices governing children’s outdoor play are not well developed, resulting in gaps and barriers to outdoor play.  Given the critical importance of both early childhood education and outdoor play to healthy child development, it is imperative that multiple sectors work together to reduce barriers and increase opportunities for outdoor play in early childhood education programs.”

The discussion paper is based on the six major themes which emerged from the Outdoor Play and Early Learning Policy Research Symposium held in October, 2018, in King City, Ontario, to explore how to advance outdoor play and early childhood education across policy, practice, and research.

The importance of adopting a multi-sector ecosystem lens to address outdoor play:  Increasing opportunities for children’s outdoor play is a strategic focus of the Lawson Foundation, whose mission is to support the healthy development of children and youth.  At the opening of the Symposium, the Lawson Foundation proposed a new paradigm for ECE programs that would include regular and repeated access to outdoor play in engaging outdoor environments, across the seasons, in all weather, and for extended periods of time.  Proposed actions include “creating demonstration projects that engage multi-sector stakeholders and multiple components of the outdoor play ecosystem to develop, test, and evaluate best practice models to increase the quality of outdoor play experiences for children in ECE programs.”

Approaches to integrating Indigenous curriculum and ways of knowing about outdoor play into Western early childhood education:  Dr. Angela James, Indigenous scholar, researcher, and educator, in her keynote address to the Symposium, “called for members of the outdoor play ecosystem to engage in an assessment that would acknowledge and incorporate key Indigenous values, which include the following: 

  • The reverential attitude toward the child in Indigenous families

  • Parents as first teachers

  • Grandparents’ (Elders’) love for children, which is the most profound love that the Creator has for humankind

  • Importance of identity and self

  • Holistic developmental understandings (mind, heart, body, spirit)

  • Relationships to people, place, and time

  • Spiral guides and spiral learning

  • Spirituality as an extension of culture

  • Experiential learning and storytelling as key modes of learning

Proposed actions in this area include: “Building relationships with Indigenous Elders, advisors, and community partners to learn about Indigenous curriculum and ways of knowing.  Create communities of practice to spur more discussion, learning, and meaningful transfer of learning into practice.”

Building support for, and enabling, risk in outdoor play: The discussion paper notes:  “Outdoor play and risk are essential elements for healthy child development …. The outdoor environment provides children with opportunities to experience risk and thereby learn risk management….Despite its importance, risky play is often curtailed by provincial and territorial policies and regulations, internal ECE program policies, and adult attitudes, due in part to the fear of injury and potential liability.  Contrary to popular belief, outdoor play does not pose great risk of injury to children, nor is the insurance industry risk-averse in this regard…. The insurance industry can be a strong ally to advance outdoor play given its mandate to assess risk, develop mitigation strategies, and provide insurance products precisely to enable program implementation….Requiring that ECE students and practitioners be trained in risk benefit assessment could positively influence organizational policies and practices to support risk.  It would demonstrate to insurance and government sectors that ECE programs have policies and procedures in place to support risk and know the due diligence to be exercised in mitigating hazardous situations.”  The discussion paper stressed the value of involving parents in reframing attitudes toward risky play in ECE programs.  “Dr. Mariana Brussoni reinforced the benefits of providing parents with tools to help them understand why risky play is important to child development and convey the confidence necessary to support their children.  Such tools should help parents adjust their perceptions of risk by allowing them to understand the disadvantages associated with overprotecting children.

Proposed actions in this area include:

  • Update provincial and territorial curriculum frameworks and post-secondary ECE program curricula to include evidence-based competencies for risky play and risk benefit assessment.

  • Create pathways to training in risk benefit assessment for all relevant stakeholders, including faculty delivering post-secondary ECE programs, supervisors and educators in ECE programs, program and playground inspectors, and managers of community spaces and parks.  Evaluate risk benefit assessment training for its effectiveness and potential to be adopted as a standard.

  • Identify key ECE informants on risky play to engage and partner with the insurance sector to develop cross-sector understanding and jointly support the development of policy for outdoor play and risk.

  • Compile accessible Canadian resources on the nature of children’s injuries obtained during outdoor play, program models which embed risk into outdoor play environments, and risk benefit assessment processes.  Use this information to educate parents and inform policy development, space design, insurance policies and products, and ECE programming.

The need to make outdoor play pedagogy explicit in post-secondary early childhood education training and to support ongoing professional learning needs:  “The interactions of adults with children, which include role modelling and connecting children with place, influence how children act upon and embrace options for exploration and learning.”  The Symposium revealed tremendous variety in post-secondary training and professional development programs across the country. 

Outdoor play is influenced by how adults, including ECE practitioners, support or inhibit children’s opportunities to engage with their environments.  The interactions of adults with children, which include role modelling and connecting children with place, influence how children embrace options for exploration and learning.  Post-secondary training and professional development programs contribute to the knowledge and skills that inform early childhood educators’ philosophy and practice.

The Symposium revealed tremendous variety in such programs across the country, with “a wide range of views about if, where, and how to position outdoor play pedagogy in post-secondary ECE programs”.  Ongoing professional development programs vary tremendously in curricula and standards.  “Currently, there are no professional standards associated with who may offer professional development sessions nor is there any guarantee that those delivering training do so with the most up-to-date research in theory or in practice.

Proposed actions include:

  • Upgrade the curricula of post-secondary ECE programs to include evidence-based outdoor play pedagogy, and advance professional development opportunities that do the same.

  • Develop regional and provincial strategies to deliver the professional development training needed to support all stakeholders in the outdoor play ecosystem.  Consider training and mentorship models to support changes in practice.

The multiple gaps and barriers to outdoor play in policies and standards, and the inconsistent implementation of such policies by stakeholders:  “One of the strongest messages Symposium participants expressed, despite their differing backgrounds and perspectives, is inconsistency in interpretation and resulting implementation of legislation and policies.  The same legislation and policy set for a province or territory is interpreted differently from region to region and inspector to inspector…. inspections are undertaken on the basis of a rigid checklist rather than how the program and space (natural or manufactured materials) does or does not support children’s play….Others outlined the challenges faced when policies from different aspects of the ecosystem conflict with one another.  For example, some participants have found that outdoor play spaces met the early childhood licensing requirements but did not comply with public health requirements.”

Proposed actions included:

  • Determine and address gaps and barriers to outdoor play in current government regulations and policies

  • Establish guidelines for outdoor play spaces based on Universal Design.  Also, develop policy and procedures that support regular access to, and use of, community spaces and parks for outdoor play and learning.

  • Separate Canadian Standards Association (CSA) standards for the engineering-related issues of manufactured play equipment from value-based judgments on the use of the play space and inclusion of natural materials and loose parts.

  • Ensure provincial and territorial ECE curriculum frameworks and complementary resource include explicit recommendations on outdoor play programming and facilitation strategies to engage educators and children in high-quality play experiences.

The need to develop a robust Canadian research and knowledge mobilization strategy to support evidence-informed policy and practice:  The discussion paper notes that “a significant amount of research on outdoor play derives from international scholars and institutions; only a small network of leaders and organizations within the Canadian ecosystem are currently engaged in this type of research.  Research and evidence-based practice in a Canadian context are necessary to advance outdoor play and influence societal attitudes, policies, and practices here in Canada.”

Research themes identified included:

  • Impacts of outdoor play

  • Identification of best practices and quality programming

  • Risk factors (e.g. the impact of climate, injury, liability, and illness related to outdoor play versus the risks of not taking part in outdoor play)

  • Existing training gaps

  • Policies

  • Indigenous ways and contexts (e.g. exploring where and how Indigenous viewpoints are incorporated into training, professional development, community programs, and children’s outdoor play experiences)

  • Play space design (e.g. adoption of Universal Design principles in play space designs and construction)

  • Proposed actions included:

  • Conduct research on the suggested priorities to inform current practice and policy

  • Increase opportunities for collaborative research on the current national state and impact of children’s outdoor play

  • Determine the feasibility of creating a national information portal of research and resources on outdoor play

Design and launch a network-based advocacy process to improve policies and guidelines at all governmental levels for outdoor play programs and spaces on the basis of evidence-based research.

Nelli Agbulos