Why We Love Natural Environments for Young Children


Numerous studies of outdoor experiences have shown that natural outdoor environments have an impact on humans…they reduce stress and create a feeling of well-being. Early childhood is often described as a unique and critical time for connecting with nature. Natural play spaces offer opportunities for children to explore, investigate, imagine, discover, learn, and interact with nature, insects and animals and other children. Nature makes children wonder and wondering is a powerful tool for lifelong learning.



With the support of sensitive and experienced Early Childhood Professionals these opportunities and interactions with nature can provide rich, complex learning for children.

Children, when they play in nature, are more likely to have positive feelings about each other and their surroundings.

Our very favourite advocate of chidlren in nature, Richard Louv, tells us many important things about children and families making connections with nature in his book " Last Child in The Woods". He tells us -

  • Other species help children develop empathy.
  • To leave part of the yard rough. Don't manicure everything. Small children in particular love to turn over rocks and find bugs, and give them some space to do that. Take your child fishing. Take your child on hikes.
  • Natural playgrounds may decrease bullying
  • Green exercise improves psychological health

Jennifer Ward writes in her book “I love Dirt”, that there is nothing more joyful and inspiring to watch than children discovering the world around them- whether they are collecting fallen leaves, rolling down grassy hills, or playing in the waves at the beach. Every day there are new discoveries to be made: a caterpillar in a tree; dirt that has turned into mud; sprouting sunflowers; visiting birds. These all provide a valuable focus for children's innate curiosity.

Sue Elliott in her book "The Outdoor Playspace Naturally" says that it's all about sensory experiences; children judge nature by how they can interact with it rather than by how it looks. She writes that all the manufactured equipment and all the indoor instructional materials produced by the best educators in the world can't substitute for how it feels to a child to build a trench in the sand or squish mud between her toes.

Vegetative rooms, bushy cubbies, dens or enclosed spaces have been shown to promote more sustained, complex and creative play than purpose built or adult built cubbies. Mass produced toys cannot replace the sensory moment when a child's attention is captured by the sparkle of sunlight through leaves, the sight of butterflies or a colony of ants, or the infinite space in an iris flower. Seeing that wide eyed wonder in our children is such a gift.

Education for sustainability needs to be a 'new vision of education that seeks to empower people of all ages to assume responsibility for creating a sustainable future' (World Summit on Sustainability 2002).


Nature and its impact on children

Children with nature nearby their homes are more resistant to stress; have lower incidence of behavioural disorders, anxiety, and depression; and have a highermeasure of self-worth.

  • The greater the amount of nature exposure, the greater the benefits (Wells &Evans, 2003).
  • Spending time in nature has been shown to reduce stress and benefit treatment of numerous health conditions (Kahn, 1999).
  • Symptoms of children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) are relieved after contact with nature. The greener the setting, the more the relief. (Taylor et al.,2001).
  • Children with views of and contact with nature score higher on tests of concentration and self-discipline. The greener, the better the scores (Wells, 2000;Grahn et al., 1997; Taylor et al., 2002).
  • Children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often (Grahn et al., 1997; Fjortoft & Sageie, 2001).
  • When children play in natural environments, their play is more diverse. There is a higher prevalence of imaginative and creative play that fosters language and collaborative skills (Moore & Wong, 1997; Taylor et al., 1998; Fjortoft, 2000).
  • Exposure to natural environments improves children's cognitive development by increasing their awareness, reasoning, and observational skills (Pyle, 2002).
  • Play in a diverse natural environment reduces or eliminates bullying (Malone & Tranter, 2003).
  • Nature helps children develop powers of observation and creativity, as well as a sense of peace and being at one with the world (Crain, 2001).
  • Early experiences with the natural world have been positively linked with the development of imagination and the sense of wonder (Cobb, 1977; Louv, 1991).
  • Wonder is an important motivator for lifelong learning (Wilson, 1997)
  • Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other (Moore, 1996)
  • Natural environments stimulate social interaction between children (Moore, 1986; Bixler et al., 2002)
  • Play in outdoor environments stimulates all aspects of child development more readily than indoor environments (Moore & Wong, 1997).
  • An affinity to and love of nature, along with a positive environmental ethic, grow out of regular contact with and play in the natural world during early childhood (Chawla, 1988; Wilson, 1993; Sobel, 1996, 2002 & 2004; Wilson, 1997; Kahn, 1999; Kals et al., 1999; Moore & Cosco, 2000; Bixler et al.,2002; Kals & Ittner, 2003; Schultz et al., 2004)




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