Developmental Benefits of Natural Play Environments

Article by Joe Frost, Ed.D.; L.H.D., Parker Centennial Professor Emeritus, University of Texas

Contemporary research across multiple disciplines reveals unprecedented insight into the developmental benefits of free, spontaneous outdoor play and playgrounds, and the deleterious consequences of their loss. The following are brief samples of this knowledge. Play contributes to academic learning, sharpens fitness, elevates mood and memory, lowers stress, helps prevent disease, and promotes physical and mental health and healing. These benefits are evident across the life span. Play builds bodies and brains, reverses some of the effects of aging, and transmits culture. These play benefits are enhanced with healthy diets and rich socialization.

Playgrounds are built in natural outdoor places where children gather to play. On a playground, brachiating on overhead devices supports the development of perceptual and motor abilities, upper body strength, eye/hand coordination, flexibility, and coordination. Running, climbing, and team games assist in discovering individual movement potential, building self-confidence, solving problems of space and distance, and improving balance, strength, flexibility, and fitness. Fitness is linked to movement and aerobic activity. Swinging promotes social interaction, dramatic imagination, vestibular stimulation, and falling and landing safely. Loose parts (portable materials) and natural materials influence symbolic play, utilizing sand and water, play in natural habitats, wheel vehicle play, play fighting, tool use, nature play, and constructing. All these developmental benefits and more result from active outdoor play.

The benefits of environment and physical activity are complimentary. Living, playing, and learning outdoors in nature promotes sensory stimulation and mental acuity, boosts creativity, increases intelligence, promotes health, enhances physical and emotional fitness, and supports awareness and sustainability of natural ecosystems – and much more. There are no chronological age limits on such benefits.

Throughout the past century leading child development centers and nature centers created natural/built, indoor/outdoor programs and environments emphasizing experiential, hands-on learning and playful learning and teaching. Such places are living laboratories. Parents and teachers cannot take children to the wilderness every day but they can bring nature and play to schoolyards and neighborhoods and create magical places for living and learning.

Sources for this article can be found in Words on Play®: A treatise on its value by leading play scholars.

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