Nature Play - When nature and learning collide, wondrous things can happen
When you drive past your local public school, keep an eye out for what’s fast becoming a must-have for every schoolyard… it might be a pile of branches fashioned into a cubby, or it could be a fairy circle of log rounds. Whatever you spy, you’ve likely stumbled across a purpose-built nature play space.
As primary schools continue to invest in nature-play spaces, we’re hearing more and more about the benefits of children playing and being in nature – and not just being outside and running about on the school oval, but really engaging in play and learning activities where natural features such as logs, rocks, and water integrate with children’s activities.
A growing body of research indicates that when children connect with nature, take risks, and manipulate their environment in both play and learning scenarios, it reflects positively on their health and wellbeing.
For teachers in the know, nature-based play and learning can provide novel ways to connect students with learning. By incorporating nature into play and learning experiences at school, teachers can create opportunities for children to develop important skills such as problem-solving, creativity, and resilience, while also gaining a deeper appreciation and understanding of the natural world.
Take for example, cooking damper on an outdoor fire. This simple activity can encompass a range of curriculum skills – maths and measurement of ingredients, essential fire and safety skills, literacy, and sequencing skills from the recipe, as well as resourcefulness in finding the best sticks to use as skewers. In this way, teaching in nature can have real impact when it comes to student learning.
But how many schools are using purpose-built nature play areas to their full capacity?
In my recent research, I found that purpose-built nature play spaces are present, planned, or in construction in 88 per cent of South Australian schools. This is great news for students, but on the flip side, many of these spaces are being underutilised, especially when it comes to the curriculum. Given the benefits of nature-based play and learning, and the investment that schools have made in these areas, boosting learning opportunities seems intuitive. So, what’s going on?
From what school staff are saying, a key barrier to using purpose-built nature play spaces for teaching is a general lack of knowledge and confidence. In my study, 68 per cent of school staff felt that a lack of knowledge and confidence limited their use of nature-based play and learning. Similarly, over a third of teachers said that a lack of understanding and support from others in the school put a stop on any progressive teaching developments. Add to this a crowded curriculum, and teachers’ availability to include nature-based play and learning in the school day is rather limited.
Given the clear benefits of getting children out into nature, it’s important for schools to consider how they can take full advantage of their purpose-built nature play spaces. So, what can we do?
First, it’s important that we find ways for teachers to upskill and feel confident in delivering learning opportunities in nature. This could include professional development opportunities and resources to support teachers in developing their knowledge and skills, as well as integrating nature-based learning into existing curriculum frameworks.
Additionally, my research has identified that a ‘nature-based play and learning champion’ helped to enable the use of nature-based play and learning. This is someone at the school who is an advocate for nature-based play and learning. Nature-based play and learning champions can play a role in creating a supportive environment for nature-based play and learning to take place and for teachers to build their knowledge and confidence. Schools should consider cultivating and nurturing champions within their community.
When we come to the heart of it, nature-based learning doesn’t have to be complex. But given the enormous benefits it can provide for children’s health, development and well-being, it is worth the investment. Schools have already invested in the physical spaces; now, it’s time to invest in our teachers to make this amazing outdoor learning happen.
Words: Nicole Miller
Nicole is an expert in nature-based play and learning. She works with educators, principals, and school staff to understand the current practices and perspectives of nature-based play and learning and the barriers to and enablers of these practices.
Originally published in Connected Caregiving Autumn 2023