Empirical Evidence in Support of Nature Play

A report by the American Association of Pediatricians (Ginsburg et al, 2006) states that children need unstructured, free play time for healthy emotional and cognitive development. Both qualitative and quantitative studies indicate that natural settings with ample vegetation encourage more and longer play sessions (Moore & Cosco, 2006; Rivkin, 1997; Wilson, 1995; Hart, 1979; Taylor, Wiley, Kuo, & Sullivan, 1998). Herrington found that landscape-based designs stimulate more aspects of human development than standard play equipment (Herrington and Studtmann, 1998). For example, dramatic play props and construction play promote cooperative play and give children the chance to engage their interpersonal skills (Barbour, 1999).

One reason that outdoor play is decreasing is that caregivers emphasize academic preparedness over play and unstructured activities, even at the preschool level (Ginsburg et. al., 2006). In addition to health and development benefits significant learning inevitably occurs in the outdoors especially when it is accompanied by environmental education. Natural environments create a rich context for preschoolers’ cognitive development through play (Kellert, 2002). One of the earliest stages of development requires children to begin to categorize and distinguish objects, characteristics, and uses. Observing conditions of the world, such as the life cycle of plants and animals or changing weather patterns, gives children practice in interpreting empirical observations (Kellert, 2002). Nature surpasses human-made structures in variety and complexity needed to stimulate these learning experiences. Other outdoor education includes practice adapting to a dynamic world and assessing risk. For those still concerned with formal education indoors, recent research has identified access to nature as an important mental relief, allowing the brain more capacity to focus and store information (Louv, 2005; Taylor and Kuo, 2008; Taylor et. al, 2001).

In addition, outdoor play including organized sports, exploring nature, and sustained construction play offer children a chance to exercise gross and fine motor skills that the indoor play facility is ill-equipped to allow (Fjurtoft and Sageie, 2000). Emerging research links decreased outdoor play with the rise of preschooler’s weight-related health problems (Moore, 2003; Sturm, 2005; Klesges et. al., 1990). Barbour (1999) determines that multi-purpose play spaces offer physical and social benefits to a wider range of children than those who are already physically competent and confident. Such spaces include sand, water, loose parts, varied natural climbing structures, and natural areas. These rich play environments encourage psychomotor physical challenges, which stimulate the mind and body simultaneously (Bixler et. al., 2002).

Natural Playscapes meet the needs of young children to have frequent unstructured play in nature in a safe setting. Although these areas have been built throughout the world over the past twenty years, none exist in Greater Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Playscape Project was inspired by research projects such as the “Motivation to Move: Physical Activity Affordances in Outdoor Preschool Areas” (Cosco, 2006) and “Head Start Growth and Readiness in the Outdoor World: Linking Research and Practice” (Cosco 2007; Cosco et al. 2004). These projects suggest that well-designed playspaces broaden children’s play repertoires and therefore experiential learning within extended natural learning cycles focusing the locus of control on the child rather than the teacher, thereby enhancing preschoolers’ self-esteem, creativity, and understanding of natural processes. Positive effects of nature also include improving children’s ability to sustain attention (Faber Taylor and Kuo, 2008; Faber Taylor et al. 2001; Wells, 2000).

Furthermore, the American Institutes for Research (2005) found a 27% increase in measured mastery of science concepts; enhanced cooperation and conflict resolution skills; gains in self-esteem; gains in positive environmental behavior; and gains in problem-solving, motivation to learn, and classroom behavior among at-risk youth who spent time in green space compared to a control group. Cosco’s research (2006) on physical activity has shown that children’s physical activity is correlated with diversity of outdoor environments and their physical design. It adds to the existing research that shows:

a) Time spent outdoors is an environmental determinant most strongly correlated with greater amounts of physical activity in children. (Sallis, Nader, Broyles, Berry, Elder, McKenzie, & Nelson, 1993).

b) Preschoolers with higher levels of outdoor physical activity retain higher levels as school age children. (Moore, Di Gao, Bradlee, Cupples,Sundarajan-Ramamurti, Proctor, Hood, Singer, & Ellison, 2003).

c) Active outdoor childhood influences the preference for outdoor experiences in adulthood. (Wells, & Lekies, 2006)

d) The preschool and, more specifically, the preschool outdoors is a strong determinant of physical activity. (Dowda, Pate, Trost, Almeida, & Sirard, 2004).

Building on the existing research, the Cosco & Moore research critically focused on affordance and behavior setting in playscapes or on natural playgrounds. With regard to affordance studies, the approach helps investigators understand the impact of the physical environment on children and to identify environmental attributes that are associated with specific behavioral responses. It stresses the relationship between perception and action (Gibson and Pick, 2000). Behavior settings are ecological units where the physical environment and the behavior are inextricably connected. These eco-behavioral units were first described by Barker (1976) who, through direct observation of children, noticed that behavior settings have clearly identifiable spatial and temporal boundaries.

Clearly the evidence exists for creating playscapes targeted to young children. This evidence, however, is not heeded and acted upon across the nation according to playground designers (Frost & Talbot, 2007). Thus, the demonstration playscapes to be described in this session aim to serve as models for the local, regional, and national Head Start and other early childhood programs.