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Benefits for children of time spent in nature

Topics: Human Wellbeing | Comments

Time spent playing outdoors is a classic childhood image  - but it’s one that has been declining over time due to a range of factors such as increased reliance on technology, reduced free time and perceived safety issues.

In Australia, a report commissioned by Planet Ark found that there has been a dramatic shift from outdoor to indoor play in just one generation, with 72% of respondents playing outdoors daily in their childhood, compared with only 35% of their children[i].

Richard Louv, the author of the bestsellers Last Child in the Woods (2005) and The Nature Principle (2011), coined the term “nature-deficit disorder” to describe the loss of connection children increasingly feel with the natural world. Nature-deficit disorder is not a clinically recognised condition, he explains, but rather a term to evoke a loss of communion with other living things[ii].

A disconnection from nature has implications for children, and there is increasing evidence that time spent in nature offers developmental, emotional and health benefits to children.

Improving learning and play

Nature provides both an enjoyable place and objects for play and learning.

Among older children, exposure to nature encourages exploration and building activities. This can improve problem-solving abilities, ability to respond to changing contexts, and participation in group decision-making. Younger children often use outdoor settings having plants, stones, and sticks as props for imaginative play, which is key to social and cognitive development[iii].

One study of children’s play found that a cluster of shrubs was the most popular place to play on an elementary schoolyard because it could be transformed into many imaginary places: a house, spaceship, etc [iv].

A forest kindergarten is a type of preschool education for children held almost exclusively outdoors. Whatever the weather, children are encouraged to take the lead in playing, exploring and learning in a forest or natural environment. Forest schools have been operating successfully in Northern Europe for over 50 years. Several “Bush Kinder” programs have now begun in Australia, the first being the Westgarth Bush Kinder in Melbourne. The program has “No toys, No tools, No art supplies” with children and adults using only what nature has provided.

Improving children’s physical health

Whilst a disconnection from nature is a concern in itself, less time outdoors may also be linked to health issues, such as the rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders and depression.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2012, more than one third of children and adolescents were overweight or obese[v]. Globally, in 2010 the number of overweight children under the age of five, was estimated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to be over 42 million. Close to 35 million of these are living in developing countries[vi].

Overweight and obese children are likely to stay obese into adulthood and more likely to develop non-communicable diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases at a younger age. Overweight and obesity, as well as their related diseases, are largely preventable.

The proximity and accessibility of green spaces in relation to residential areas appears to affect the overall levels of physical activity/exercise. This is true of children and young people[vii]. Thus access to nature has a role to play in helping reduce childhood obesity through exercise.

Improving children’s mental health

There is evidence that some behavioural or emotional problems in children, such as attention deficit disorder, can be improved by exposure to green space[viii].

Studies show that childhood ADD symptoms can be reduced through activities in green settings and that “green time” may be an important supplement to established drug-based and behavioral treatments.[ix] In one study, the greenness of a child’s home did not significantly affect ADD symptom severity, but greenness of play setting was related to a reduction of symptom severity. Children who played in windowless indoor settings had significantly more severe symptoms than those who played in grassy, outdoor spaces with or without trees. So children with ADD can benefit from spending more time in green settings on a daily basis, and during attention demanding activities (like school and homework)[x].

Research conducted by The Nature Conservancy in the USA of over 600 children aged 13-18 found that whilst they spent little time in nature (fewer than 20% conducted outdoor activities weekly), 90% reported the being outdoors and participating in outdoor activities left them feeling “less stressed” [xi].

Community programs to reconnect children with nature

Encouragingly, there are also programs developing globally attempting to shift the trend and reconnect children with nature. From recognition of the issues, to structured programs, this issue is being addressed through educational institutions, parks programs and concerned parents.

Through the Children and Nature Network, co-founded by Richard Louv, hundreds of programs have commenced in the US, UK and other nations. “Nature clubs” have been developed in China and Peru, for example, to get urban parents and children out into nature and reconnected to it.

Several Australian examples of programs intended to get children back into nature include:

Parks Victoria Junior Rangers program, encouraging children to explore parks with actual park rangers

  • BotaniKIDS Ballarat run with a Nature Playgroup at the Gardens
  • Leap into Nature, a new outdoor nature-based playgroup in Melbourne.
  • Muddy Boots and Sandy Hands in Geelong, running informal play groups in parks
  • “Walk together” groups, or walking school buses, aimed at getting children walking to school (these also exist across Europe)
  • Kitchen Garden Programs, teaching children to nurture and grow their own food


There are many benefits to reconnecting children with nature – both in potential improvements in physical and mental health and in improving development and play. There are also potential benefits to the environment, as a generation connected to nature is more likely to value and protect it. Thus, again, healthy parks and healthy people are intimately connected.



[iii] Heerwagen, J. 2009. Biophilia, health, and well-being. In: Campbell, L., and A. Wiesen (eds.), Restorative Commons: Creating Health and Well-Being Through Urban Landscapes. Gen. Tech. Rep. NRS-P-39. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northern Research Station.

[iv] Kirkby, M. 1989. Nature As Refuge in Children’s Environments. Children’s Environments Quarterly 6, 1: 7-12.





[ix] Taylor, A.F., and F.E. Kuo. 2009. Children with Attention Deficits Concentrate Better After Walk in the Park. Journal of Attention Disorders 12, 5: 402-09.

[x] Taylor, A. F., F.E. Kuo, and W.C. Sullivan. 2001. Coping with ADD: The Surprising Connection to Green Play Settings. Environment and Behavior 33, 1: 54-77.


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