Nature Play: Making your Child Happier, Healthier, Smarter

Have you ever wondered to yourself, “What’s the big deal with nature play?” It’s been a hot topic in recent years, something you may have come across when scanning news articles, blogs, or in conversations with friends. You might be asking what nature play really means or how it affects you and your family. We’re here to help sort through all the information that’s out there and share the most important points with you on why you’re an awesome parent for bringing your child to LEAP this winter, because you are!

First, let’s think about what nature play means. Pinning down a single definition can be tough, as it’s a purposefully open ended concept that is always changing and growing. We’ve narrowed it down to be as simple as this:

Nature play is unstructured exploration and play in nature with nature.

In its purest form, nature play takes place in nature—outside, surrounded by trees, grass, dirt, sunshine, rain, rocks and critters. We’ve adapted that idea for our LEAP program and focus on the “unstructured” and “with nature” parts, as well as spending time outside as much as we can (most often in our fall and spring series).  We hope that you and your child incorporate activities we do together in class into your own lives and make spending time outside part of your routine. We’re always happy to share ideas of some of our favorite outdoor activities and places around Chicago!

About 10 years ago, a man named Richard Louv published a book, Last Child in the Woods, and coined the term, “nature-deficit disorder,” in reference to the changing culture of childhood in America. This concept brought to light a widespread lack of nature in the lives of children—an idea we as environmental educators and parents care deeply about. Around the world, children are spending significantly less time in natural settings, and it’s having a negative effect on their health. Their time is more and more structured, with fewer opportunities to make decisions and creatively solve problems.

Since the release of his book, a wealth of research has been released on the importance of both nature and child-directed play. We can answer the question, “Do children really need nature?” with a resounding, “YES!!”

Each week, when you come to LEAP with your child, you’re not only spending quality time together, but also supporting his or her cognitive, physical, emotional, and social well-being. Wow! Time spent in nature, or interacting with natural materials, especially in an unstructured or loosely structured setting, has an abundance of benefits. Here are a few:

Cognitive Development

  • Being in and around nature increases a child’s ability to focus and enhances their cognitive abilities (Wells, 2000). 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).

  • Children who spend time learning in nature score higher on tests and show an increased understanding in language arts, math, science, and social studies (American Institutes for Research, 2005).

  • Play in nature increases capacity for creativity, problem solving, and intellectual development (Kellert, 2005).

Physical Development

  • 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).

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


Social/Emotional Development

  • Being in nature reduces stress! Access to green spaces, and even a view of green settings, enhances peace, self-control and self-discipline within city youth, and particularly in girls (Taylor, Kuo and Sullivan, 2001).
  • Many studies on the benefits of being outside and interacting with nature provide a wealth of evidence that these positive experiences at a young age encourage a lifelong connection with the natural world (Cheng & Monroe)
  • 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).

All of these areas are equally important in developing a happy, healthy toddler. Coming to the zoo each week to play and explore with your child is something you can really feel good about.
Over the next six weeks, we encourage you to observe firsthand the changes in your child. You’ll notice them becoming more independent, solve problems on their own, use objects in interesting and creative ways, interact socially with other toddlers, and take ownership of their work and art. 

Thank you for being a part of our community and spreading a love of nature and a connection to living things to your child while allowing us to be a part of it. We’re so excited to learn, play, and grow together! 

Written by Emily Van Laan