Episode 15: How Your Child Benefits From Outdoor Play
Why is outdoor play a vital component to a child’s development?
On this episode of the Adeona Family Podcast, Tracy and Zoe are joined by Rebecca from Nature Play QLD to discuss the importance of outdoor play in nature.
This episode talks about:
- What is nature play and how it benefits children
- How families can expose their children to outdoor nature play
- Nature play activities, ideas and downloadable sheets
- Free form creativity and earth art with nature’s loose parts
- How to encourage children during independent play in nature
- How Nature Play QLD supports the community, families, early childhood centers and schools
- Why unstructured play is so important to a child’s development
What is Nature Play?
Nature Play QLD (a program of Outdoor’s Queensland) is a non-profit organization working with families, communities, education centers, schools and a host of community partners.
Specifically, Nature Play QLD is founded on the understanding that unstructured, outdoor nature play is fundamental to a full and healthy childhood.
Above all, their aim is to increase the time Queensland kids spend in unstructured play outdoors and in nature. For example, they support nature-based play all over Queensland in a wide variety of ways, including:
- Participation programs
- Advocacy and research
- Events and workshops
- Extensive resources for families and educators
What are the benefits of outdoor play?
Outdoor free play is vital for the holistic development, overall learning and wellbeing of children. How do we know this?
Well, research shows that experiences in nature fundamentally support key pillars in a child’s development. These include a child’s physical and mental health, resilience, creativity, and emotional intelligence.
Likewise, engaging in nature play supports cognitive, social and emotional development, as well as instilling a lifelong awareness of the environment.
Where to find Nature Play QLD
We’d love to hear from you! If you have any feedback, suggestions or questions about anything we discussed in this episode, please feel free to reach out – firstname.lastname@example.org.
Our Early Childhood Education Centres
Hello and welcome to today’s podcast. Today we’re coming to you from the lands of the Yuggera and Turrbal land. And today we have a very special guest with us from nature play Rebecca. Rebecca I’d just like to hand over to you to acknowledge which lands you were coming to us from today.
Today, I’m sitting in Southeast Queensland, which is the Yugambeh language region.
Fantastic. Thank you so much, Rebecca. So as you can tell from our introduction today, we have a special guest with us, which is very exciting from nature play. And today we’re going to be discussing all things relating to play in nature and the importance of that, especially in early childhood education at Adeona, we’re huge advocates of outdoor play and when the weather allows, we are out there as much as we can, probably the only time we do come inside is when the UV gets a little bit too high, our children understand that. So it’s a very important part of our learning, but also I’d just like to acknowledge that this week is reconciliation week as we are recording. So I think it’s also probably going to be very important to acknowledge first nation’s perspectives on outdoor learning as well over this week. So, Rebecca, it’s fantastic to have you here.
Thanks for having me.
Excellent. Rebecca, maybe we could just start by you explaining just a little bit about what nature play is.
Yeah, so nature play Queensland is a program of outdoors Queensland. It’s a nonprofit organization and we support families. We work with communities, education centers, schools, and many community partners just to get kids outdoors. So our mission is to increase the time that kids spend in unstructured play outdoors and in nature. And I guess it’s because we know that outdoor nature play is fundamental to a full and healthy childhood.
That’s fantastic. And certainly principles that we at Adeona agree with and support and you know, will work with your organization in implementing. So Rebecca, you were saying how important outdoor unstructured outdoor play is. Can you give us some, some of the benefits for our young children in having that time outside playing?
Well, the benefits are so extensive that outdoor free play really supports their holistic development overall learning, and really importantly, their wellbeing, their emotional and mental health. There’s a lot of research that tells us that when children have experiences out in nature, they’re more resilient, they’re healthier and happier. So it really does support the whole child.
And you work across a couple of different contexts. So you work with organizations, as you said, like ours, but also with families, families, and young children in general. So in an environment like Adeona, we try and provide an outdoor environment as natural as possible, given the constraints of space and risk assessments and all of those things that we need to be doing, what can families be doing on their weekends or their free time to be giving children that exposure?
Yeah, I think one of the wonderful things about nature is that there’s all these beautiful, what we call nature’s loose parts. And that’s, if we do step outside in our backyards or on either our council spaces, our community parks, there’s petals leaves, seedpods, sticks. All of those things that are just naturally there and they have these endless possibilities of play. And so while some children might go out and, and collect them because their colors are beautiful and there’s red and yellow leaves, parents can do a whole range of different activities. And in fact, we provide a whole lot of resource sheets that are completely free, all digitally downloadable on our website to support families, to give them ideas about what they can do in these spaces. Particularly over COVID, we heard lots of messages about get outside, go to parks, go to playgrounds and families did, but then the playgrounds were cordoned off.
And sometimes when there’s not an activity or a playground, families can get a little bit stumped. And so earth art is one of the most amazing things that I think children and families love together. And that’s just collecting things like the petals and sticks and seed pods and creating, making patterns, making mandalas, arranging them in colors and just creating whatever you want with those things. There’s no paint, there’s no glue, don’t need paper. You just pick up whatever’s around you in your backyard and create on the ground. That’s called ephemeral art and it’s very transient. So it, you know, the end of the day, it’ll blow away with the wind or wash away in the rain and the next day can go back and create again. So I think there’s lots of opportunities. It’s just having those ideas to know what to do when you get out there.
And I love that idea of that transient art and the impact that has on children’s understanding of sustainability as well, and how we don’t always have to be gluing things onto a piece of paper or adding glitter or anything. We can find amazing, creative aspects in the environment.
Absolutely. And if we go to an art gallery, not everything is on a white rectangle piece of canvas on the wall, there are structures, 3d there’s, you know, it’s very multimedia. And I suppose, exposing them to that nature art is just supporting their creativity and expression in another way.
I have to say that probably one of my favorite things about being outdoors with children is that it really allows them to show where their imagination is at. It’s probably one of the few areas that is, you can be completely child led with no agenda from adults whatsoever. And I’m thinking about examples of my own children, of going to the beach and instead of building castles or the things that you think they will do, they’ll spend hours feeding the ocean by throwing sand and pretending it’s a monster eating the sand and all of this. Hours of play. And we had a very deep, meaningful learning experience with my daughter who had a leaf that broke down, which we then had to have a funeral for the leaf and grieve the leaf and draw and write obituaries for the leaf <laugh> it was a huge life learning lesson.
That is one of the big things. The imagination really, really is inspired by all of those natural things, because there is those endless possibilities. I think a lot of the commercial type toys that we buy have a very desired outcome or desire, you know, intended use. And so you’ve gotta play with those kind of toys in certain ways. And when children do get to the beach or a stack of sticks and leaves, there’s nothing telling them how it has to be played with or what they do. So it allows for them to just have that free form imagination, creativity, and, you know, you, you can be in one play space with a whole group of children and one group over here are creating little structures and making them dragons dens, and someone else is making fairy houses. And someone else is saving the injured lizard by creating a little home with lizard with all the sticks. So it is that really open endedness about all of those nature’s loose parts that make it so valuable.
Absolutely. Would you agree that the other key ingredient though, that we need to give children outdoors is time?
Absolutely. Yeah. And I think that’s why we’re so committed to our mission, you know, for some of us that are older, if I think back to my childhood, I got to come home every afternoon and kick off my shoes and go outside and ride bikes and slide down hills on cardboard and build cubbies and play in the creek and the same every weekend. And I I’m really fortunate and blessed to have that experience, but a lot of children today don’t have those same opportunities. You know, some children don’t have a backyard where we’re living in flats and units. We might not have a park that’s close by, or we might not have the suitable supervision, but we do have that fear in society about the safety when children are heading outdoors, children of today have less opportunity to be outdoors. So they have less opportunity to play freely. Also we’ve seen the increase in devices and children spending more and more time on screens. And again, that has affected the amount of time that they have to play. So giving them that time is a big key.
So would you say that one of nature plays objectives then is just to get families and children at centers, schools everywhere just more time outside and really making it a priority to get out on the weekends and just have some free time at the park or at bushwalk or, something like that outside?
Yeah, I think everybody can kind of do their bit, there’s enough research and evidence to show that children aren’t having those opportunities. And there may be limited times for families in afternoons if there’s long work hours, but in those cases, those children are spending long hours in early childhood centers or schools and after school care settings where those educators can make more dedicated time to be spending outdoors.
And then we were talking before about imagination, about, children can be completely free with all the loose parts that they have available to them in nature. What would you say to parents who have children who, when they’re outdoors, it starts with that, well, I’m bored. What can we do the parks closed, you know, those sorts of things. And I know you mentioned before your website, which sounds like it has some great, amazing prompts on it that parents could go armed with, but how would you encourage children to keep going if they’re having trouble getting started with playing independently outdoors.
Yeah. I think when children haven’t had many experiences playing outdoors, sometimes they can kind of say, what do I do out there? Because they’re used to having these toys and resources that have very clear ways of playing with them. I think if you’re an educator, you would’ve heard of the word provocation before. Maybe that’s more new for families, but just providing something that is a little bit of an inspiration. And it could be sitting like often with the nature art, I just sit down and do a little bit, families can do that and you’ll find that children will just join and then they’ll do it. And from then on every time they go to the park, it’s like, that’s something in their tool belt that they can keep going back to and doing. It might be setting up.
Sometimes I just grab some sticks and I might put the sticks out on the ground and do some running and leaping. And children just naturally gravitate that kind of inspirational provocation and, children will run and leap and then they’ll start doing two sticks and pulling them further apart and making an obstacle course where they’re gonna jump in some and hop in another. I think it’s just starting it in a little way, giving them those little ideas about what you can do outside. And then adults can kind of step back. And I think once children have done those little things once, parents don’t need to keep reintroducing them, children will just do that naturally because they have those skills under their belt.
Perfect. Yeah. And I think that you touched on something else too, that as the parents can step back, it allows for more opportunities for children to engage in problem solving as well. So be that social that if they’re down at the park and they start a game and other children come and join in, which is quite often what happens, they make new friends for other children saying, yeah, that looks fun. I want in, on that action or even making the obstacle course. Oh, well we had in our head that we wanted a hoop, how are we gonna make that? It’s not turning out quite how we envisioned. I think the outdoor space is a really, really good space for children to really practice those problem solving and resilience skills.
Yes, absolutely. Nature just provides a lot of inconsistencies and irregularities and all those things kind of present problems and challenges. And if we allow children the time to be able to kind of work those out, engage in thinking skills, collaboration, communication with their peers, about how they’re going to overcome those challenges. We see their resilience really bolstered in that type of play.
You are from nature, play Queensland and we’re all based here in Brisbane. I think we can all attest that the weather hasn’t been ideal for outdoor play necessarily <laugh> lately. So what opportunities do different types of weather and the rain and the puddles present for families and children outdoors?
Yeah, I think it, it has been challenging weather, but amongst that it has predominantly happened over summer where it’s not particularly cold. So we can still let children get outside. You know, even if it’s just short periods of time or we put the right outfits on them or have spare sets of clothes so that they, you know, can get dry afterwards. But children innately learn about their environment through their sensory experiences, you know, through all that hands on stuff, using their whole bodies. And so being outdoors and being able to jump in puddles and, and play with mud, they’re all sensory exploration. So it’s where all the rich learning really, really occurs. Yep. They could get a bit wet and could get a bit muddy, but you need to think about all the benefits they’re getting from that. You know, there’s lots of research that backs up even how much healthier children are.
If they spend more time outdoors in the fresh air, getting vitamin D it actually boosts their immune system. You know, it’s kind of a bit of a myth that if kids go out and play in the rain, they’re gonna get sick. They actually get sick from a germ, not from rain and being cold or anything, but you know, there’s some great wet weather gear out there as well. If parents are concerned about that. Whilst there’s been challenging, whether I think there’s still a lot of breaks in between that. And sometimes the other thing is bringing nature inside in our early childhood spaces, we spend a lot of time having baskets and things. And when there is those breaks around going outside, collecting lots of things and then bringing them in on the veranda inside and using that nature in our play and learning opportunities inside. So they’re still getting to have that hands on sensory experience to learn.
Absolutely fantastic. You know, there isn’t a child on the planet who doesn’t love to jump in a good puddle when it’s available and see how high they can get their splash.
Actually, I was just gonna say, I work a lot in Bush kindy programs. And if I think back about all of the days that really stand out in my memory that either children keep retelling the stories of that amazing day or even my own memories are often the big rainy days. And there’s so much to learn from rain and water and puddles and things as well. So yeah, don’t hold back.
Absolutely. Get out there and have fun with it. Is anything else Rebecca, that you would like to mention about the work that nature play Queensland does?
I guess we’re out there to support everybody in the community. Like I mentioned, we, we have a lot of resources and a lot of things on our website and in our socials for families and it’s all there just readily accessible. People can download it straight away on their phone. We do get out and about into early childhood centers and schools and go and visit. And whether that’s supporting them to create and build some nature play spaces or taking their curriculum outdoors. So there’s some amazing schools in Queensland that are taking their curriculum, all of the different subjects, outdoors every single day, just so that children are having this enriched learning and reaping these benefits of nature. So it’s an exciting space.
Fantastic. And we’ll put all the links to all of that information up in the show notes today as well so that it’s easy for our families and anyone listening to access. Zoe, did you have any questions you’d like to jump in with?
I’ve just got something that I’ve been pondering while I’ve been listening to Rebecca chat. I don’t know if you are very aware of it, Rebecca, but I’ll just explain it for families. There is this early Australian, early development census that’s conducted every few years and it’s done more for children who are at school and it gauges their development over five key areas up until that point during their early childhood. And it’s emotional language, communication, social and physical, and across Queensland, we have more vulnerable children than the Australian average and listening to all the things that you’ve been talking about with nature play, I can see the amazing benefits that that could have for people in accessing that because nature play can be done without needing very many resources. And I guess that’s one of the things that I really appreciate about nature play is that it opens the world up to anyone of any socioeconomic level.
Yeah, absolutely. It’s it’s accessible anywhere. I think one of the key things, when you just talked about all those kind of different areas of development is how important being engaged and immersed in nature is for our mental and emotional wellbeing. And I think now more than ever in our society, we’ve all had a couple of very challenging years with pandemics and floods and, and things like that. There is so much research that backs it up, but you know, significantly we see it every day in our practice, how children feel so much more supported and we see their optimum development really well supported in those outdoor spaces. You know, the moment we all step outside and into those nature spaces, it is calmer. We do feel more relaxed. We see children actually focus and attend more. So particularly when we see lessons and curriculum taken outdoor, their attention span is doubled because it is a calmer place.
They have opportunities for their mind to be kind of clear and just really focused on the task at hand and I think because they’re also engaging their whole body they’re so involved and so engaged and that’s quite a different learning space compared to some of our very busy classrooms that have lots of stimulation around us and lots of noise and visual stimulation and lots going on, having those sort of freer, calmer spaces, outdoors to engage in learning. We’re seeing really big benefits. And particularly, I think with all students, but particularly we’re seeing some really significant results with children with additional needs. And so it is really lovely to see it in practice and see how children are blossoming. And we’re having some schools that are keeping statistics and data to kind of show those increases in performance both academically, as well as all those other areas of like social, mental and emotional wellbeing.
Rebecca, is there a place that families can see the schools that are embracing the nature play way for when they’re looking for schools to enroll their children in down the track.
We do have, um, the educator provider status, which is a, a celebration of those early childhood centers and schools and wishes that are going above and beyond the norm and taking kids outside to enrich their learning. So you can head to our website and, you know, you can put in that you live at Brisbane and I’ll show you those schools that are doing it. There are a lot across, they’re not all on our education providers today. So particularly in our schools, it’s just a very new space. And I guess if people are wanting to see things, you can, you know, there’s even stuff on YouTube. Berrinba East State School is one of our exemplary examples of a school doing amazing stuff in outdoors, and really seeing the benefits in their children’s academic performance, social performance, attendance, and across the board really positive results.
Fantastic. Sounds like there’s a lot to be excited about and it’s making me wanna take my laptop outside and do my work outside today already. Very inspired.
Can I share one thing about people often ask why is unstructured place so important? And if we think about our lives, even as adults, our lives today, compared to maybe what our parents were, we’re very busy. There’s a lot going on inside and there’s a lot of demands in us and children’s lives are very, you know, adult led very structured, very busy, and they’re not having enough of those opportunities just for free play. But what we see when they engage in free play, so when they are heading outside and, you know, they can do maths with leaves and sticks instead of having a worksheet because they’re choosing whether it sticks or leaves or seed pods, and they’re choosing and having input and engagement in making decisions about their planned learning. There’s this real sense of intrinsic motivation. So it’s coming from within that kind of drives them to stay focused, to stay attentive, to stay really engaged.
That learning becomes a lot deeper because of that intrinsic motivation. So much of children’s lives is from external adults telling them. And particularly in school and early learning says adults telling them all day what to do, how to do, where they’ve gotta do everything. And, you know, there’s a reason for all of that. But when they’re given those opportunities to make their own decisions about play learning and we see that in outside that intrinsic motivation really keeps them engaged. And so the amount of learning that occurs when it’s child led and there’s that little bit more unstructured or just freedom, I guess, for children to make those decisions. And there might just be small decisions instead of having to use plastic counters for maths. It’s like, well, everyone head outside, you’ve all got a bag, we need to collect 20 nature items. Just that little bit of freedom where children go, well, I’m collecting 20 seed pods and another child might go, I’m gonna collect 20 different items and none of them are gonna be the same. Those little things are so valuable to children that they’re already like all these are my seed pods. I collected them. So, you know, there’s that intrinsic drive to wanna engage in that activity. So I think there’s, yeah, so many reasons why outdoor play and learning work well
And something that just popped into my head when you were talking then Rebecca too, is that I think that by providing children with the opportunity to play outside and engage with the environment, it really sparks that passion and joy. And I think that will translate into, you know, those conversations about looking after the environment and sustainability and the way that different cultures approach that including our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures that we have and looking at all of that, it can bring so much into what we do.
Absolutely the moment you head out and take a class group of children out and start collecting leaves. Those conversations come up about, you know, we are not picking leaves from the tree and, and why not, you know, and, and who needs all those flowers on the trees. So those conversations about caring for country are there every day. And so from the get go, the moment you’re experiencing and immersing yourself in nature, there’s that respect for the environment and showing appreciation that, you know, we are just using what we need and like the earth art it’s created, and then it just stays there, blows away. We’re not like wasting, it’s not ending up in the bin. It’s very sustainable. So all those kind of sustainable practices and, and connections to indigenous perspectives are just embedded and throughout all of those experiences when you’re outdoors.
And I think the flow on, you know, as they’re going around looking to pick up leaves and seeing the rubbish that has been left, and then it’s a really good lesson in how do we make sure, how do we reduce what’s happening there? Like how can we recycle, how can we make sure people are putting their rubbish in their bins? We’re really making them responsible citizens just by something as simple as go outside and pick up 20 leaves.
Yeah, absolutely. Cause they do particularly see that in school grounds, when I do those activities, they notice the rubbish and, and those conversations start. I noticed in early childhood spaces when they’re playing in those nature spaces and they’re taking notice of all those leaves and flowers, and they’re asking, well, what’s this plant called and, and what’s this tree. And they’re getting to learn about those particular plants and trees and particularly our native flora and fauna. And that really lends itself to making those connections to culture. You know, a lot of our native plants have traditional uses whether that’s medicine, tools and resources or food. And so all of those kind of conversations just naturally are sparked when children are outdoors, engaging with all of those kind of plants and leaves and things like that.
Excellent. Fantastic. Thank you so much, Rebecca, I think that we could possibly talk about this subject all day, because as you said, playing outside lends itself to so many developmental opportunities, but above all, it’s just fun. It’s just great. And as you said, good for our mental health, ours and the children’s, everybody’s to get out there, especially as you said, to get some vitamin D while the sun is shining. Well, thank you so much for your time, Rebecca. I really, really appreciate it. As I said, we’ll put some links to nature, play Queensland into our show notes so that people can click through. You’re on Facebook, you’re on Instagram. You have a website and Twitter. And of course you can talk to any of our directors at our services. We are all subscribed to the Nature Play Queensland newsletters and are across all their events. Are you doing the mud play this year? Because you’ve certainly got plenty of it available.
<laugh> yes. There have been mud world events in the past, but I guess a few years ago, we kind of made those decisions and, and weighed up whilst there’s masses of benefits for children engaging in mud play to kind of construct an activity where we’re actually bringing mud and water in when there’s some towns that have no water. So, we encourage everyone to get out and find their own little mud puddle somewhere else. Definitely out there in lots of our spaces.
That’s right. Fantastic. All right. Well, thank you Rebecca. And thank you for everyone for listening. We’ll put those resources up and hopefully we’ll have you back to talk about it again soon. Thank you.
Thanks for having me.