Guest Post: Nature Play- Supporting the Whole Child

When thinking about how to best support the development of young children, the term “whole child approach” is frequently used. When considering the “whole child” one must consider development in all the various areas, or domains, that encompass the ways in which children learn, grow, and change over time. These domains are intertwined, each affecting the others. Nature play has been shown to support all areas of development: cognitive, social, emotional, and physical.

 In our current society, there is a major focus on fostering a child’s intellectual, or cognitive, development. It is also important to keep in mind that the way a child functions emotionally, socially, and physically can have an effect on his or her ability to learn. These areas are equally important in sustaining the development of the “whole child”.

 How Nature Play Supports Social, Emotional and Physical Development  (From the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University)

Social Development:

  • Reduces Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) symptoms. 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). 
  •  Improves social relations. 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).

 Emotional Development:

  • Improves self-discipline. Access to green spaces, 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).
  • Reduces stress. Green plants and vistas reduce stress among highly stressed children. Locations with greater number of plants, greener views, and access to natural play areas show more significant results (Wells and Evans, 2003).

Physical Development:  

  • Increases physical activity. 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).
  • Improves eyesight. More time spent outdoors is related to reduced rates of nearsightedness, also known as myopia, in children and adolescents (American Academy of Ophthalmology, 2011).

Beyond the research, there are also things that we as parents and facilitators of nature play programs with young children are able to observe firsthand. We witness the ways in which adults model caring behaviors for their children, for both nature and for the other children and caregivers in the program: this is social development. We are able to see the way in which young children take ownership of their work and art, developing autonomy and self-confidence: this is emotional development. We notice how children use the space they are in and the natural materials they are provided to exercise their muscles, both large and small: this is physical development. There is no doubt these children are learning, and they are learning with their “whole” selves!

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Jennifer Stubbs is a currently a graduate student in Child Development at the Erikson Institute and a full-time mom. Her time volunteering and working at the Lincoln Park Zoo, along with her graduate program and the birth of her daughter, honed her interest in early childhood informal education, specifically in the realm of nature play. She is currently doing her internship at the Hamill Family Play Zoo at Brookfield Zoo. She has recently taken up blogging about her reflections on nature play, motherhood, and the science of child development at