Playful styles of nature engagement yield multiple benefits for children

Gill, T. (2014). The benefits of children's engagement with nature: A systematic literature review. Children, Youth And Environments, 24, 10-34.

A systematic literature review was conducted on research related to the benefits of time in nature for children under twelve years old. Inclusion criteria of the review included peer-reviewed research published in English between 1990 and 2011 that had a robust methodology and focused on children's experiences in nearby nature. These criteria yielded 61 studies that were categorized based on the specific benefits that were addressed in the research. The review identified benefits for children related to time in nature in the general areas of health, well-being, cognitive processes, social skills, emotional/behavior issues, and ethics/attitude towards the natural world. The studies were grouped together by specific benefit to develop an overall assessment of the extent to which evidence supports the existence of each benefit. The review determined that the following claims are well supported by robust research:

“Spending time in natural areas as a child is associated with adult pro-environmental attitudes and feelings of being connected with the natural world, and is also associated with a stronger sense of place.
Living nearby green spaces is associated with greater physical activity.
Spending time in nearby nature leads to improvements in mental health and emotional regulation, both for specific groups of children (such as those with ADHD) and children as a whole.
Children who take part in school gardening projects improve in scientific learning more than those who do not, and have healthier eating habits.
Experience of green environments is associated with greater environmental knowledge.
Play in natural environments leads to improvements in motor fitness for pre-school children.”

Overall, the literature review supports the view that spending time in nature is an important childhood experience that promotes their healthy development, well-being and positive attitudes towards the natural world.  The review helps to shed particular light on the relationship between benefits and the way in which children engage with the natural environment, highlighting “the value of more playful engagement styles such as free play, exploration, leisure and child initiated learning.” An overall theme was that more playful engagement with nature was associated with health benefits as well as positive environmental attitudes and less playful approaches, such as school gardening projects and field trips, yielded more educational benefits. This insight into the importance of children's playful engagement with the natural world is an important contribution to the literature and provides support for “initiatives that allow for more open-ended, child-directed and playful experiences in natural environments.”

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