Nature play is a valid contributor to sustainability outcomes

Ernst, J. ., McAllister, K. ., Siklander, P. ., & Storli, R. . (2021). Contributions to sustainability through young children’s nature play: A systematic review. Sustainability, 13, 1-36.

This systematic review of the literature sought to identify outcomes of young children's nature play that further the aims of education for sustainability (EfS). The research process included two general phases; (1) the systematic review, focusing on child development outcomes associated with young children's nature play, and (2) an alignment of the child development outcomes with Education for Sustainability outcomes.

Thirty-two studies met the eligibility and quality appraisal criteria for the literature review. The included studies (a) focused on children aged birth through eight years, (b) reported outcomes of a program using nature play, and (c) were designed as empirical research or evaluation. Additionally, all the included studies were peer-reviewed, provided a description of the program, included information on the research methods and data, and reported findings or outcomes in sufficient detail. These literature review outcomes were then mapped to early childhood education for sustainability (ECEfS) outcomes. The ECEfS outcomes were based on two guiding documents for EfS: (1) the Cloud Institute's Education for a Sustainable Future Benchmarks for Individual and Social Learning, and (2) the Cloud Institute's Education for a Sustainable Future Standards and Performance Indicators PreK-2 Edition.

The 32 studies reported a total of 98 outcomes of nature play. The most frequently reported outcomes across all the studies related to connection to nature, stewardship or care of nature, self-confidence, and self-regulation. When coded according to outcome areas, the ones with the most examples of reported evidence were social and emotional development, scientific knowledge and thinking, and approaches to learning. Findings relating to the second phase of this research indicate that “nature play supports education for sustainability benchmarks of applied knowledge, dispositions, skills, and applications.” These findings indicate that “nature play's contribution to sustainability is both extensive and rich.”  However, findings also suggest that nature play alone is not sufficient toward meeting the objectives of ECEfS.

These research findings indicate that “nature play is a valid contributor to sustainability outcomes” while also offering multiple benefits for young children. Nature play should thus be “acknowledged and embraced as an effective EfS approach.” An important message for practitioners is that they “should not abandon nature play in the pursuit of sustainability.”

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