What is Nature Play?

Learn about the advantages of nature play, where natural playgrounds sit on the continuum and how regular nature play can support positive childhood development.

Australians are so lucky to be surrounded by incredibly diverse environments. From rugged coastlines and dense rainforests to snow-capped mountains and everything in between – you can travel just a few hours by car and feel like you’ve been teleported to another world.

For children, this diversity of landscape creates wonderful opportunities for them to learn, grow and engage with their surrounding environment through nature play.


What Are Nature Play Environments?

Before exploring the different elements that make up nature play, it’s important to clarify that ‘nature play’ itself is a continuum rather than a fixed description. At one end of the spectrum you have the purest forms of nature play, such as bush play with sticks, trees, dirt, mud and leaves. Essentially, leaving kids to make their own play in the natural world. At the other end sits playgrounds that incorporate man-made wooden play equipment with the surrounding natural environment – in other words, natural playgrounds.

Nature play can be all these things and more, which is an important distinction for landscape architects who want to develop rich sensory playgrounds. The best natural playground designs allow for true nature play as well as the ideal mixture of equipment that caters to different age groups and development levels. This is particularly pertinent in urban areas, where access to safe natural landscapes is more limited.

Here are some of the most common natural environments where children love to play:

  • Sand, water and mud patches
  • Native vegetation
  • Gravel paths
  • Dry creek beds
  • Fish ponds
  • Piles of logs
  • Loose river rocks
  • Gardening and veggie patches
  • Open bush areas
  • Beach and scrubland


4 Elements of Nature Play for Children

The best natural playgrounds are those that provide children with the four key elements of nature play:

  1. Physical play: Climbing on objects such as timber logs.
  2. Construction play: Building with sticks, logs, leaves, bark and dirt.
  3. Imaginary play: Open areas for children to explore (either solo or in groups) with natural elements like sticks that they can pick up and create stories with.
  4. Sensory play: A wide spectrum of things to see, touch, smell and hear – helping children feel a deeper connection to nature through play.

Learn more about how to design an effective nature playground here.


The Benefits of Nature Play for Children

Play in and around nature – whether in its purest form of bush play, or in a more mixed setting such as natural playgrounds – brings with it untold advantages for children’s development.

According to research by Paul Johnson, an eco-literacy coordinator and playground design consultant, he’s seen firsthand how “playing freely in nature supported children’s creativity, feelings of belonging, and sense of efficacy”. He also reveals that other independent research shows free play in and around nature:

  • offered excitement and fun;
  • sustained longer-lasting play;
  • supported diversity of play;
  • responded to player’s needs; and
  • reduced the number and severity of accidents.

There is sometimes resistance to nature play. This includes safety risks, lack of control over children’s decision-making and how they engage with the environment, and concerns about things that may bite or sting. You can learn more about balancing safe play with adventurism here.

For landscape architects, these risks must be factored into the design of natural playgrounds. Having a maintenance mindset is extremely valuable – in addition to smart design, you will want to consider the value and benefits of certain natural elements, such as using durable materials like ironbark in your equipment.

If we want our children to experience all the wonders of the natural world around them, we need to ensure they fall in love with it from a young age. Opportunities for pure nature play and letting them explore and learn with natural playgrounds are integral to this development.

Natura’s play consultants are experts in nature play theory and design. To speak to us about your next project, give us a call on 1800 655 041.

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Acknowledgement of Country

Natura acknowledges all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people — the traditional Custodians of the land on which we work. We respect their continuing connection to land, waters, and culture and recognise that sovereignty has never been ceded. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.