Early childhood educators describe a nature playscape as an environment that supports the holistic development of children

Schlembach, S., Kochanowski, L., Brown, R. D., & Carr, V. (2018). Early childhood educators' perceptions of play and inquiry on a nature playspace. Children, Youth And Environments, 28, 82-101. https://doi.org/http://dx.doi.org/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.28.2.0082

This study investigated the benefits of a nature playscape as perceived by early childhood educators who regularly used such a playscape. The study was based on the understanding that teachers' beliefs, values, knowledge, and comfort levels influence how teachers relate to children in different environments. While a natural environment offers multiple possibilities for children's play and learning, teachers are the deciders on how that space and the elements of that space are used.

Thirteen early childhood teachers participated in this study either by completing an online survey, participating in semi-structured interviews, or completing the survey and participating in the interview. Questions addressed during the interviews were similar to the survey questions and focused on the following topics: the importance of nature play for young children, how play in nature contributes to informal learning and inquiry, and the teacher's role in supporting and facilitating play and inquiry in the nature playscape.  All 13 of the participating teachers were educators at an urban university early childhood laboratory school and had access to an intentionally designed nature playscape located on the campus. Natural features of the playscape include a spigot-fed creek, trees, logs, shrubs, herbs, a grape arbor, and a grassy hill. Teachers' descriptions of how children used the playscape were supported by photos, field notes, and video recordings. The data collection process continued over an eight-month period.

Teachers perceived freedom and autonomy for children and themselves to be the primary benefit gained from experiences in the nature playscape. Children challenging themselves in activities requiring agility, coordination, and strength reflected their feelings of freedom and autonomy. Such activities also demonstrated their sense of confidence and competence.  Teachers indicated that they, too, felt more free in the nature playscape than in the classroom or on the more traditional playground. They felt less of a need to manage the children's behavior. Children, while in the nature playscape, demonstrated more meaningful play and inquiry. The teachers described children's play as being “more purposeful” and suggested that this is when “inquiry and deep learning take place.” The teachers described the nature playscape as an environment that “has the capacity to meet the individual developmental needs of the whole child—social, emotional, cognitive, and physical.”

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