The Benefits of playing in nature: what we all know and research confirms

Children & Nature Network,

Annotated Bibliographies of Research and Studies,

Volumes 1 and 2 (2007).

Children’s lifestyle research

Children today spend less time playing outdoors than any previous generation. Primary concern: 82% of mothers with children between the ages of 3 and 12 cited crime and safety concerns (Clements, 2004)

Today’s children have a more restricted range in which they can play freely, have fewer playmates who are less diverse, and are more home-centered than any previous generation (Karsten, 2005)

Children’s free play and discretionary time declined more than seven hours a week from 1981 to 1997 and an additional two hours from 1997 to 2003, totaling 9 hours less a week of time over a 25-year period in which children can choose to participate in unstructured activities (Hofferth and Sandberg, 2001; Hofferth and Curtin, 2006)

Obesity in children has increased from about 4% in the 1960s to close to 20% in 2004 (CDC, 2006)

Sixty two percent of children do not participate in any organized physical activity and 23% do not participate in any free-time physical activity (CDC, 2003) The percent of children who live within a mile of school and who walk or bike to school has declined nearly 25 percent in the past 30 years. Barely 21 percent of children today live within one mile of their school (CDC, 2006)

Children between the ages of 6 months and 6 years spend an average of 1.5 hours a day with electronic media. Youth between the ages of 8 and 18 spend an average of 6.5 hours a day with electronic media (Kaiser Family Foundation, 2005 and 2006) While 71 percent of adults report that they walked or rode a bike to school when they were young, only 22 percent of children do so today. (Beldon Russonello and Stewart Research and Communications, 2003)

Ninety four percent of parents say that safety is their biggest concern when making decisions about whether to allow their children to engage in free play in the out-of-doors. (Bagley, Ball and Salmon, 2006)

Children predominantly play at home, with their activities monitored and controlled by adults, compared to children a generation ago. Only 3 percent of today’s children have a high degree of mobility and freedom in how and where they play. (Tandy, 1999) Children can identify 25 percent more Pokemon characters than wildlife species at eight years old. (Balmfold, Clegg, Coulson and Taylor, 2002) The Natural Learning Initiative, College of Design. North Carolina State University 2

Effect of nature on children’s lives

Contact with the natural world can significantly reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children as young as five years old (Kuo and Taylor, 2004)

The greener a child’s everyday environment, the more manageable are their symptoms of attention-deficit disorder. (Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan, 2001)

Access to green spaces for play, and even a view of green settings, enhances peace, self-control and self-discipline within inner city youth, and particularly in girls (Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan, 2001)

Green plants and vistas reduce stress among highly stressed children in rural areas, with the results the most significant where there are the greatest number of plants, green views and access to natural play areas (Wells and Evans, 2003)

Nature is important to children’s development in every major way—intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually and physically (Kellert, 2005)

Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problemsolving, and intellectual development. Therefore changes in our modern built environments should be made to optimize children’s positive contact with nature (Kellert, 2005)

Proximity to, views of, and daily exposure to natural settings increases children’s ability to focus and enhances cognitive abilities (Wells, 2000)

Positive direct experience in the out-of-doors and being taken outdoors by someone close to the child—a parent, grandparent, or other trusted guardian—are the two factors that most contribute to individuals choosing to take action to benefit the environment as adults. (Chawla, 2006)

Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to one another and more creative (Bell and Dyment, 2006)

Outdoor experiences for teens result in enhanced self-esteem, self-confidence, independence, autonomy and initiative. These positive results persist through many years (Kellert with Derr, 1998)

Studies in the US show that schools that use outdoor classrooms and other forms of nature-based experiential education support significant student gains in social studies, science, language arts, and math. Students in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27% (American Institutes for Research, 2005)

Studies of children in schoolyards found that children engage in more creative forms of play in the green areas. They also played more cooperatively (Bell and Dyment, 2006) Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors (Burdette and Whitaker, 2005)



What Kindergarten Readiness Means to Kindergarten Teachers

Lisa Guernsey - November 2, 2009 - 10:48am

Data from a survey of kindergarten teachers in California's Santa Clara County adds to the mounting evidence that kindergarten readiness is not as simple to define as you might think.

Contrary to popular conceptions of what it means for a 5-year-old to be ready for kindergarten, most kindergarten teachers are not wishing for rooms full of children who can already identify the letters of the alphabet. What they want instead are children who have learned how to regulate their impulses, follow through on a difficult task and have the self-control to listen to the teacher's directions for a few minutes.

This was one of several messages that emerged in Sacramento last Thursday during a presentation of recent data from the Santa Clara County Partnership for School Readiness, a collaborative of public, private and non-profit organizations in Silicon Valley. The presentation was part of the forum at which the New America Foundation released our report on early education in California.

Researchers for the Santa Clara County Partnership surveyed 36 kindergarten teachers in 2008, asking them multiple questions about what they believed entering kindergarteners should to be able to do in the domains of self-care and motor skills, self-regulation, social expression and kindergarten academics. Loretta Burns, director for the partnership, showed this slide at the California event to explain how these domains build on each other:

While kindergarten academics is at the top of the pyramid, most kindergarten teachers did not report that children need to come in with a strong base in academic skills if they want to have a successful kindergarten year. Instead, the teachers gave top billing to self-care and motor skills followed by self-regulation.

Teachers said that it was easiest to help students develop their academic skills and hardest to make an impact in developing their self-regulation skills. In fact, they said they had to spend the most time in the classroom focusing on self-regulation.

This highlights the importance of designing interactions in the preschool years that are developmentally appropriate. Worksheets that force 4-year-olds to trace the outline of the letter A are a far cry from the types of experiences young children really need in the preschool years.

How can preschool and kindergarten experiences help children learn to self-regulate? Research on the importance of building self-regulation skills in young children has been accumulating over the past few years, and some of it is starting to zoom in on the significance of playtime, particularly pretend play scenarios that are child-led but feature teacher input. For example, the Tools of the Mind approach, which we've written about several times, incorporates pretend play in classroom settings and has been shown in scientific research to improve children's executive function and self-regulation skills.

Burns' presentation about the Santa Clara project was valuable on several other levels too. It provided a view of kindergarten readiness assessment that may help to dispel concerns about inappropriate testing of preschoolers. As Burns explained early in her presentation: "This is not about standardized tests for 4-year-olds."

The assessments in Santa Clara collect information from parents, teachers and observations of children in classroom settings. They are not used to determine where children should be placed or what schools they should attend, nor are they used to evaluate teachers or for other high-stakes purposes. The observations are done by trained teachers who look for signs of children's progress on multiple levels. Some examples of what they look for:

  • Can the child operate zippers or work with crayons?
  • Can the child follow one- or two-step directions?
  • Can the child engage in symbolic play with others (like playing house or fire station)?
  • Can the child count 10 objects correctly?

Santa Clara has been conducting these assessments since 2004, and the data is providing new insights to better prepare teachers for the children coming through their doors. Besides demographic and skill-based information, the data tells schools and teachers how many children are arriving with some experience in early learning environments like preschools and high-quality child care centers.

Collecting information like this is critical to ensuring that early education systems provide what children need. We hope that, as states continue to build out more robust and accessible systems of early learning for young children, well-designed and appropriate kindergarten readiness assessments like this one continue to be part of the picture.