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Children and Natural Play Spaces

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Children and Natural Play Spaces



Natural play spaces are important to a child’s growth and development. Outdoor play spaces are forever changing with the growth and demise of vegetation, manoeuvrability of loose part and changing weather conditions. These changing conditions bring elements of surprise and wonder for children, which helps to develop their loco-motor skills, problem solving skills and sensory experiences (Kirkby, 1989). Kirkby (1989) notes that the changing conditions also provide children with flexibility to move from one natural element to another as they engage in play activities across a range of developmental styles and areas. For example, a sandpit with rock surrounds set with logs could be interpreted by a 5 year old as dinosaurs as they engage in imaginative play (Elliott, 2008).


This article will explore the value of natural play spaces for children aged 0-5 years. It will discuss the experiences and opportunities that natural play spaces provide.


Birth-3 Years of Age


Brain research reinforces the importance of positive experiences for infancy and toddlerhood (Rolfe, 2000a). Rolfe (2000a) notes that normal brain development is dependent on specific patterns of positive experiences at specific times. Rolf continues by stating that these patterns of experiences rely on a child’s positive sense of self which is developed from feelings of control, autonomy, initiative and competence. Natural play spaces provide such experiences when a child is able to control these feelings whilst interacting with their environment. When an infant or toddler is given the chance to play freely in a natural space, they will develop a sense of honour and achievement as they learn and grow from these feelings and experiences.


For babies, their sense of self is developed through their relationship with one or more loving adults. The most important element for a baby in a natural play space is the adult who will share their sense of wonder for the environment and do some of the risk taking for them like holding a small creature (Elliott, 2008). “This rapport between baby and adult provides positive feedback to the child that the adult values them and their sense of self becomes a positive one” (Elliott, 2008, p78).


Babies have an awareness of sounds and movements and find natural play spaces stimulating with the sounds of scrunching dry leaves, birds in the trees over head and the feeling of wind on their face. Grassy open spaces are also fantastic natural play spaces for babies because they can watch the play of other children but also have the ability to crawl and explore further (Elliott, 2008).


Toddlers need loco-motor stimulation as they grow and become mobile. Grassy spaces are fantastic areas for toddlers to run, dance, push and pull. Toddlers also strive for independence and test their limits by moving away from adult supervision in a safe and controlled way. Natural play spaces provide the opportunities for toddlers to do this. Pathways that meander through a play space allows for toddlers to push prams, ride wheel toys and feel as they are moving away from the adult. Natural play spaces with items that can be manipulated also allow toddlers to feel independent and in control – to move a log, cart mud and play with sand (Elliott, 2008).


Sand is an important element for toddlers in the natural play space. Sand provides not just a sensory experience, but also a material with which to practise imitative roles. For example sand can be used to stir in a cooking pot or can be used as a liquid in a coffee cup. Adding water to vary the consistency as well as adding gum nuts and pebbles for decoration, extends the toddlers symbolic thinking and moves them into complex play (Elliott, 2008).


natural play spaces



3-5 Years of Age


Three year olds are still learning about their senses and developing their concentration span, so it is important to introduce sensory experiences into their interactive play time. In a natural play space, this can be achieved by introducing water to sand with other ingredients from the environment or washing dolls clothes on the lawn to provide complexities to their play (Kylin, 2003).


Three year olds also begin role-playing. Most role plays centre on the home, travelling, animals and house routines. “The advantage of children being able to develop role play in a natural setting is that they are able to interpret the environment to represent their own cultural perspective” (Elliott, 2008, p84). A cluster of tree trunks can provide dining at home, or dining at a kitchen bench or on the floor. Small stones, gum nuts and leaves can be used as Dim Sims, Fish Fingers or Falafel. In this way, each child, no matter what their cultural background, can draw on their own experiences to extend their play.


Four year olds are inquisitive and want to find out about their world. They ask many questions and want to know the answers to those questions (Elliott, 2008). By providing containers for collecting specimens from the natural play space, four year olds can engage in further investigations of the specimens at a later date. Four year olds also move from domestic themed role-modelling of a 3 year old to super heroes and rough and tumble play. A natural play space provides complexities for a 4 year old to explore the play theme options. There will always be trees to climb and jungles for dangerous animals to be lurking. Shrubbery provides hideouts and mounds provide look outs; all of this is stretching a four year olds imagination and abstract thinking far more than a built cubby or miniature grocery packets (Kylin, 2003).


Five year olds are more self sufficient, like to help and respond to positive praise. Elliott (2008) notes that five year olds value group acceptance and prefer co-operative play. Smilansky (1968, quoted in Heidermann and Hewitt, 1990, p12) states that five year olds play time increases in complexity because symbols are used, verbal interactions occur and creative ideas are shared to resolve dilemmas and expand new ways to play.


Natural play environments provide the creativity and complexity that 5 year olds require with logs acting as bridges on one day and dragons on the next.


Five year olds also like to take risks and do stunts. Trees with soft fall underneath, ropes and rope ladder, flying foxes and challenging climbing arrangements engage 5 year olds testing their skills. Outdoor play spaces also provide areas for competition where sports events, races, ball games and hurdles can occur (Elliott, 2008).


Natural play spaces meet the developmental needs and interests of children aged 0-5 years. It provides excitement in a young child’s life which contributes to the motivation to inquire, experiment and risk take. The most valuable aspect though of children engaging with the natural play space is the limited work required by the adult to set-up, manage and supervise. Allowing children the time to engage in natural play allows adults the opportunity to observe and engage with the children to develop a mutual love of learning in the outdoors.









Reviewd by Kellie Bradbury  M. Ed  B. Psy   (Teacher and Psychologist) 











Elliott, S. (2008). The Outdoor Playspace Naturally for Children Birth to Five Years: 1st Ed: Pademelon Press, NSW.


Kirkby, M. (1989). Nature as Refuge in Children’s Environments: Children’s Environment Quarterly, Vol 6, No 1 PP 7-12.


Kylin, M. (2003). Children’s Dens: Children, Youth and Environments, Vol 13 No 1

From www.


Heidemann, S. & Hewitt, D. (1990). Pathways to Play, Red leaf Press: St Paul Minnesota.


Rolfe, S. (2000a). The Brain Research Phenomenon, Every Child. Vol 6 No1: Australian Early Childhood Association, Canberra.


Read 4035 times Last modified on Saturday, 03 August 2013 04:01

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