Regular opportunities to play in nature improve children’s emotional wellbeing, particularly if the environment includes natural, less ‘managed’ outdoor areas, says Sarah Watkins…
We’re much more likely to see deeper engagement in ‘wild’ spaces because nature provides complex exploration opportunities that are difficult to replicate.
When we enable children to ‘go wild,’ they get sensory feedback from long grasses and feel joy at splashing in puddles. They improve their fine motor skills from picking weeds and work on their proprioception skills (the ability to sense what different parts of your body are doing without looking) by tackling different gradients.
They experience increased freedom and independence in secret spaces and develop spatial awareness by swinging from branches.
Even in settings where there is limited access to wild areas, we can still enable nature to nurture children.
Children who move better, feel better, and evidence has shown that physical activity can alleviate the symptoms of depression (Craft and Perna, 2004). Green spaces can also be protective, preventing and reducing some chronic diseases.
For example, asthma affects 1 in 11 children in the UK (Asthma UK, 2016), and increased tree cover is linked to a reduction in asthma rates in young children (Lovasi et al., 2008).
Children are generally more active outdoors, and they have increased freedom to move in different ways. This causes the brain to produce more serotonin, which regulates happiness levels: physical activity makes children happier!
A wild space provides a variety of natural obstacles, excellent for prompting different types of physical movement: jumping, clambering, crawling, sliding, rolling, climbing.
Children tend to be more engaged by negotiating obstacles in a natural setting than indoor gym equipment.
Obstacles, by their very nature, are a challenge, and, as Oprah’s famous saying goes: “challenges are gifts,” helping children build up physical and emotional resilience.
To provide natural obstacles in a small space, consider:
As well as nurturing children, wild spaces act as one big provocation, inviting children to find out what they’re capable of and test things out. (One of the fascinating things about working with young children is that their capabilities change so rapidly.)
Enabling children to access wild spaces helps them build physical and emotional competence, and this space doesn’t need to be big for a very young child!
It can be tempting to step in and solve problems for children who are struggling in the outdoor environment, especially when time is an issue, but we need to be careful that our impatience doesn’t prevent children from learning to navigate difficulties.
I have to confess that I find it frustrating helping all children get into wellies and salopettes on the first rainy day in September, but most children want to be out playing in the rain and are highly motivated to learn this important new skill.
A study by the Wildlife Trust found that 84 per cent of children who took part in regular outdoor activities felt capable of new things when they tried (Wildlife Trust, 2019). Highly resilient children are usually more competent and also positive about themselves and life in general (Souri and Hasanirad, 2011).
Adults with low levels of resilience, on the other hand, are more likely to resort to unhealthy and destructive coping mechanisms. Having high expectations of children outdoors builds their coping strategies for now and for later life.
Children are not robots, and they all learn in different ways and at a different pace, so a challenge in a natural environment won’t be the same for every child.
It might be climbing a tree for one child, whereas for another child, it could be allowing a woodlouse to crawl on their hand. For another it might simply be feeling the wind on their face.
One child was fearful about coming down a slope and wanted an adult to help her down. This was a good opportunity for critical thinking – evaluating the situation and making sound judgements. We talked about how she was feeling, and I reassured her that I was right there and could hold her hand if necessary.
Supportive relationships are key to developing competence and resilience. Communication is crucial to critical thinking, and we talked about the problem together – she was ‘stuck’ and too scared to stand up.
Modelling by peers can be valuable, and another child climbed up beside her and then he ran down. Although she didn’t feel able to copy this, it gave her confidence, and she decided to adjust the challenge by sliding down on her bottom.
She was exhilarated at having achieved this and climbed up again and again until she was able to come down on her feet. Being able to talk through the process and reflect on it helped her then coach other children.
Children often need to repeat actions over and over again to gain mastery of them, and we don’t always allow them enough time.
Author Richard Louv warns that children are experiencing ‘nature deficit disorder’ (Louv, 2005). This puts more pressure on us to give children as much access to outdoor play as possible, but it’s not always straightforward.
When I conducted an informal poll of early years settings, 20 per cent of respondents said they could only allow access to the outdoors at certain times due to staffing issues.
The biggest issue preventing outdoor play, according to my poll, is weather. We rarely suffer extreme weather in the UK, but some adults working with young children are wet weather averse, and children quickly pick up on negative body language.
We need to convey to children that our changeable climate is a positive thing – so many sensory experiences available in a single day!
Thirteen per cent of the teachers who took part in my informal poll stated that a lack of adequate wet weather clothing for children was a real barrier. It’s worth fundraising for a set of quality waterproofs – a good set won’t need replacing for years.
The final barrier I want to explore is limited outdoor space, which is a real problem for many settings.
The journey to a different location can provide as much enjoyment as play at the destination, and when young children can move at their preferred pace, they can be playful with natural materials and enjoy different sensory experiences along the way.
Urban nature is still nature, and research has found that simply noticing the good things in urban nature each day is linked to sustained improvements in wellbeing (Richardson and Sheffield, 2017).
It’s also worth seeing the world from a young child’s perspective: they can get green benefits from a tiny natural space.
Sarah Watkins is an associate lecturer, forest school leader and author. Follow Sarah on Twitter: @mini_lebowski
This article is adapted from Sarah’s book: Outdoor Play for Healthy Little Minds - Practical Ideas to Promote Children’s Wellbeing in the Early Years (Routledge, RRP £14.99).