Natural Play: how can we enable children to benefit from nature?

Children running on a path through bluebellsThere is increasing evidence that contact with nature provides a wide variety of benefits for children. These include physical, mental and social well-being benefits as well as a wide range of learning opportunities and the chance to develop an interest in and understanding of nature.  At the same time, there is increasing global concern that children are getting fewer opportunities to interact with nature.  Two papers (one recently published and another soon to be published), explore this dilemma in the context of Norway, a country which is often perceived as having strong connections to outdoor life.

The papers report on the findings of a nationwide survey of the use of local outdoor spaces by Norwegian children, and research with the Norwegian Children’s Trekking Club.  They explain that free and spontaneous play is important for a more emotional and sense rich interaction with nature, in contrast to when children are engaged in activities managed by adults.  However, despite the vast majority (88 %) of parents feeling that their child has good or very good opportunities for play in local nature spaces, nearby nature spaces have a much more sporadic daily use by children than outdoor spaces such as playgrounds and sports facilities.

The main barriers to more frequent use of nature for outdoor play, identified by the parents, include less time being available because children are busy in organised sports and leisure activities, and doing homework.  Length of distance to nature spaces, perceived unsafe nature spaces and the quality of nature spaces are regarded as less important barriers.

The findings raise questions about how the de-stressing health and well-being benefits for children, of being in nature, can fit into a target-oriented, time-pressed and potentially stressed society.  To engage children with nature, it is suggested that it is important to raise awareness of play as a spontaneous and child-initiated action, and use this to inform the development of organised nature events, educational programs, and parenting.

The papers were produced in collaboration with the Norwegian Institute for Nature Research and are part of Forest Research’s work that aims to better understand how children experience nature (including trees and woodlands).

Skar, M., Gundersen, V. & O'Brien, L. (2016a) How to engage children with nature: why not just let them play?, Children's Geographies, DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2015.1136734

Skar, M. Gunderson, V and O’Brien, L. (in press) Why do children not play in nearby nature? Results from a Norwegian survey.  Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning.