Bringing Nature Back to Nurturing Child Development

by Kimba M.

Canadian children are growing less and less active, which is why movements such as ParticipACTION are at work advertising and trying to promote more active children. Perhaps by providing spaces that facilitate more than just physical development of youth our nations young people can redeem themselves and have a bright and active future.

I recently read an internet article called ‘Are we babying our kids? Can riskier playgrounds make healthier adults?’ showcasing the idea of an Anarchy Playground.1 The premise of the article was encouraging readers to consider the pros and cons of a play area stocked with assorted junk yard objects like tires, propped up wooden boards, blankets hung from trees, shovels, buckets, and ample mud for all the children to make mud cup cakes. The playground would be less clean, tidy and safe but that children would grow tougher, mold their imaginations and develop their own play.

What I really appreciated about this play area design was the natural setting and limited instruction and interference of adults. An aspect of the play area that wasn’t emphasized was that it was surrounded by vegetation and contained abundant plant life through the active landscape. As a child I lived in a house that backed onto a forest. Right out back, through the fence gate was a bike path (fire truck lane), then a strip of grass bordered by a forest. Although I never wanted for a play space of toys within my yard I loved exploring the woods and running around in the grassy area outside of the fence. Not only did the access to the external environment encourage activity, it fed my curiosity and caused me to search, learn and even imagine what might live in the woods beyond. I loved finding new and familiar insects and plant species and bringing them home to show mom or dad. If I didn’t recognize something I would look for a picture of it in the many nature books my parents stocked the living room with. This gave me a means of socialization for I always had something new to show or share with my neighborhood friends and younger siblings.

Susan Herrington and Ken Studtmann (1998) recognized the value of a ‘nature-like’ play area and conducted a study looking at the influence of a play area stoked with trees, shrubs, rocks, and natural land masses had on more then just the physical development of children between 2-6 years of age.2 Through their 2-year study, they observed child behaviors that supported their theory that an environment closer to nature and less man made would lead to social, emotional, and cognitive child development as well as physical development.

According to a manual outlining the recipe for positive youth development published by the Province of Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services, the four important domains of adolescent development are cognitive, emotional, physical, and social.3 The design of more nature like parks and play areas has the potential to provide Canadian children with more then a boost to become active but to develop other essential personal characteristics as well, whether it be well planned and supervised or a little more anarchistic. I feel as though a national aim to provide nature-like play areas for children would be a wise investment for the health and success of today and tomorrows children.

What is your opinion of the relevance of a move towards, perhaps, less ‘safe’ playgrounds that provide children with a chance to explore nature on a regular basis?

Contributing Articles:

  1. Eisenstadt, M. (2014). Are we babying our kids? can riskier playgrounds make healthier adults?
  2. Herrington, S. & Studtmann, K. (1998). Landscape interventions: New directions for the design of children’s outdoor play environments. Landscape Urban Planning, 42(2–4), 191-205. doi:
  3. Province of Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services. Stepping stones: A resource on youth development. Updated 2013. Accessed 09/10, 2014.


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5 Responses to Bringing Nature Back to Nurturing Child Development

  1. blpye says:

    I am greatly in favour of the idea of outdoor play. Having worked at different summer camps for the past six years, I have seen in many ways how exploring the outdoors can have an impact on children. One summer I was fortunate enough to be the activity head for an orienteering program (which was really just exploring in the woods). I was able to watch one camper who was a known bully interact with his peers in a whole new way. He was fairly athletic, which he often used as a way to express his superiority over the other boys. However, in the forest, which was a relatively new environment for him, coming from a poor neighbourhood in the city of Halifax, he used his athleticism for the better, helping other boys by holding twigs, or running ahead, finding something cool, then encouraging his peers to come look. He became accepted into the group of kids he was bunking with, and as a result his behaviour improved dramatically in the other areas of camp.

    I also really like the idea of an outdoor preschool program, which fits with the 2-6 year old demographic mentioned above. I recently read an article about a trend that was sweeping over England- Outdoor Nursery Schools. In this article the founder makes the argument that children learn by doing things,and having them outside provides an eternal source of things to do. I only wish these playgrounds were more popular, and that I could be back in preschool 🙂

    (article mentioned:

  2. katelynpeters2014 says:

    I am in complete agreement with creating a more “nature” like environment for children to grow into. As like the author of this article, i also had a forest in my backyard until age 12. Before the age of 12 I had already discovered and explored most aspects of nature then I ever have. My brothers and I had built a tree house, by ourselves. We also went playing in the mud one day and discovered lots of items from a farmhouse that was located in that area over 200 years ago. We spent days upon days digging up more and more objects, some which turned out to be very valuable. This not only incorporated active play, but with the ability to explore, discover and develop a creative imaginative play that suited us at that age.

    Being involved with girl guides and scouts at a young age also made me realize how important the environment was. If children now a days are lead to believe that the outdoors is “dangerous”, how will they ever develop a bond with the outdoor environment that I find very crucial in the development of children. Scouts had very impacting activities that taught me life survival skills. We learned how to build an igloo and slept in it, build campfires, learned the basics of hunting, learned how to provide adequate shelter with very little material, etc. These are not just normal recreational activities. If all children are being protected from the outdoor environment, I am scared to see how they would provide the basic necessarily survival skills if they were to ever become lost in the outdoors.

  3. b834z says:

    Great post!

    I agree completely about the need for incorporating the environment more into youth’s play. While growing up, I was rarely indoors. There are too many exciting things outdoors. I appreciate your mentioning of the vegetation surrounding the play area as one of the important aspects of it. I was never really the ‘plant examiner’ or ‘explorer’ of my group of friends, I was the one to find a stump or log to jump off of. Though most of my friends would try to find information about the plants and berries that we would find. It is a good thing they did look into these things and ask our parents about them, because a lot of the delicious looking berries we would come across would turn out to be poisonous.

    I read an article called “Take it Outside” by Rae Pica, on how outdoor play contributes to youth development. The author noted that the outdoors is the ideal place for pre schoolers to learn and master physical skills. It is where they can emerge into society as stronger people with better social, physical and cognitive skills. This supports the article referenced where the importance of developing such skills can happen from ages 2-6. I love the idea of this play area, where it encourages more imagination and opportunity for children. If children are closer to nature with their development, I think that they will contribute more to society in their later years.

    Meggie S

  4. Really great post! I think this is such a relevant and important issue today, and I agree with you and everyone else who commented; kids today are not getting outside enough. Time in nature is so important, but especially in the developmental years.

    I too, grew up with woods in my backyard, and spend hours every day exploring and running around with my two siblings, and on my own. I learned skills that I couldn’t have learned in school, and are highly beneficial to me today. Not only does nature help in the development of “hard” skills, but develops many “soft” skills, such as empathy and calmness. For example, I worked with a boy this summer with ADHD, and away from camp, was medicated with very high doses of Vyvanse. At camp, he participated in the “Summit” program, where you spend 1 week in the Mont Tremblant National Park, trekking and canoeing. Although he was not on his medication, he was just like the other kids, excited at times, but never inappropriate. He took on a leader role, and got along with all the other Summit members. I would contribute his ability to go without medication to the natural environment he was in, unlike the city environment he was used to.

    While I do believe that children engaging in unstructured, unsupervised natural play is very important, I realize that it simply is not accessible for many youth today, who are living in cities. Despite this, I do think they should still be in nature as much as possible, so whether that be going to the city’s green space, going on natural field-trips with school, or going on day trips with the family to go for a hike, or explore a beach. It’s all important!

  5. codyb06 says:

    Nature is part of who I am. I grew up playing in the woods with my brother and cousin. We were constantly running, ducking, building, and of course fighting. What I didn’t know then was we were learning our fundamental movement skills. In a small town that is pretty spread out there is not always a way to get to the play ground so why not use natures play ground? If we can combine the two and create a nature playground that is less safe but more beneficial then why wouldn’t we? I know from my experience that nature can produce the best playgrounds, not just for youth development but for keeping it new, interesting and most importantly FUN. I believe that this unstructured play that it results in is way better for the youth than having adult designed structures with limited amounts of uses. Great post on a very important and relevant topic!

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