Research Summary

Exploring access to nature play in urban parks: Resilience, sustainability, and early childhood

Access and proximity to nature play in urban parks may promote young children’s resilience and community sustainability


A nature play site allows for the manipulation of physical and living elements of nature.  Such sites can sometimes be found in undeveloped or unmanaged parts of urban parks. This study considered whether parkland in Duluth, MN provides access for preschools to incorporate nature play in their programming. The study also considered whether other barriers may exist to limit or prevent the use of city parks for nature play by children in preschool programs.

Information gathered from the City of Duluth showed that a majority of licensed preschool facilities are located within walking distance of a city park. Fifteen preschools located within a 100-meter range of a city park completed electronic surveys about their use of city parks for nature play. Each survey included questions about the demographics of the preschool, the preschool’s use of outdoor space for play, and their use of the city park identified within 100 meters of the preschool. Additional information about the use of Duluth parkland by preschools for nature play was obtained through a focus-group involving five early childhood professionals and one parent associated with the preschools participating in the study.

Survey results indicated that the 15 participating preschools served 330 children and employed 37 full-time professionals. Survey results also indicated that the children spend an average of 8 hours in care daily. All respondents reported having an outdoor area as part of their preschool facility. Seven of the sites described their play area as “nature.” Ten respondents reported using the parkland within 100 meters of their facility. Of these, eight reported using it as a nature play site. Seven respondents noted uncertain or lack of bathroom facilities as a barrier to their use of the park. Three respondents indicated that they did not experience any barriers to the use of the park. While focus group participants strongly supported nature play in city parks, they also identified barriers related to weather, policy, and human behavior concerns.

This study suggests that proximity to nature play in urban parks can support individual resilience and community sustainability, but that the use of such parks by preschools can be hindered by “a complex interaction of access, human perception, and adult behavior.”

Beery, T. (2020). Exploring access to nature play in urban parks: Resilience, sustainability, and early childhood. Sustainability, 12, 1-17. doi: