The Power of Nature

By Dr Jean Holley

Recently, I was lucky enough to tune in to the webinar series “Well-being, Play and Outdoor Learning”, hosted by Jeavons Landscape Architects in Victoria. Topics covered ranged from garden and playground design in schools, to the importance of the outdoors as learning environments, and the crucial role of nature play in childhood development. Might not sound like explosive rocket science, but can I tell you, my mind was blown! I had so many exciting ‘aha’ moments, and very real connections to my own childhood.

Merri Park Play Space, VIC – Jeavons Landscape Architects

First up, what is nature play? Well, according to Stephanie Willey, who spoke of the importance of nature play to children’s wellbeing, the key feature of nature play is that children spend regular, long periods of unstructured and uninterrupted play time in natural environments. Why is nature play important? Nature play is bursting with learning opportunities. It develops skills such as problem solving, communication skills and social skills, and fosters imagination and sensory exploration. It supports children’s physical health and emotional wellbeing, and fosters a connection and respect for the natural world.

Tintern School, VIC – Jeavons Landscape Architects

Probably the biggest aha moment during the webinar series for me was articulating the difference between unstructured play and prescriptive play (I’m not sure if that is a defined term, but it is what I will use for now). This was highlighted by one of the speakers who spoke of a child who said that they didn’t like playing in metal playgrounds because the metal told them how to play, rather than the natural world, where they created the play. This really struck me. Think about it. What do you do with a set of monkey bars? You swing across them right? The metal structure tells you how to play with it. It has a defined, prescribed purpose. But what about a stick. There are no instructions or rules that come with a stick. It could be a sword, a light saber, a boundary, a supporting beam in a cubby house, a horse? This distinction really excited me, it was a real aha moment!

Melbourne Zoo, VIC – Jeavons Landscape Architects

Thinking about these ideas transported me back to my own childhood. I grew up on a property, where my siblings and I would spend most of our days riding on our bikes to our various nature playgrounds. There were the dirt slides, where we would stuff our pants full of leaves (for padding) and hurtle ourselves down a ridiculous steep dirt “slippery dip”. There were the open pastures littered with cattle manure that we delighted in hurling at each other. And finally the big old peppercorn tree out the back where would spend hours trying to construct a flying fox, that never worked. But we had fun trying!

It is only now, some 30 years on that I can appreciate the role of outdoor nature play in my own learning. My siblings and I were working as a team. We were developing communication skills, negotiation skills and confidence. We were problem solving, creating, imagining, building and engineering. We were working as a team to plan, design, collect and construct. And is wasn’t end product where the learning happened. I still don’t know how to make a flying fox. Instead, it was the life skills (e.g. problem solving, communication, creative thinking) that we were learning along the way. Our nature play also embedded a deep connection, wonder and respect for the natural world, a connection that has continued into my adult life and shaped my career as an insect ecologist and science communicator.

So I encourage you to make the most of our natural playgrounds (in a safe, socially distanced way). Do some investigating into the ideas of nature play, check out what services are available in your area, and think about how you can incorporate nature play into you and your children’s lives. The benefits may astound you