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Putting nature back into play

by Rachael Sharman on March 15

In 1984, psychologist Roger Ulrich published a curious finding; patients recovering in hospital rooms that afforded a view of green spaces, got better quicker and with less intervention, than those confined to a room facing bricks and mortar. Since that time, researchers from a diverse range of professions have empirically demonstrated the healing effect of exposure to nature, and have attempted to elucidate the mechanisms behind its restorative properties.

Biophillia is one hypothesis which suggests that as living beings ourselves, we share an inherent connection with all other living matter. When we replace those connections with artificial pretenders (eg living in a built environment, replacing real human interactions with digital “friends”, loading up our diets with simulated food “products”), we thwart innate biological needs, leading to a range of dysfunctional mental processes.

So much so, a new term is being posited to explain the counter-intuitive rise in a variety of psychological disorders alongside increasing Western affluenza: Nature Deficit Disorder

Nature therapy

Our modern Western lifestyle is rapidly giving rise to an unprecedented proportion of young people with mental health problems. In our increasingly affluent and hyper-protected society suicide rates are inexplicably on the increase. Finally some in the profession are pointing an accusatory finger at our disconnected, fake, artificial societal milieu as a key contributor.  Built environments that thwart access to open green spaces, and the resulting fewer real interactions with real friends (just avatars on facebook) are now being scrutinised as genuine markers for later psychological problems.

In one example of getting a start in life on the right foot, British research demonstrated that involvement in scouting organisations significantly lessened the risk of developing later mental health problems. The research team mooted a focus on resilience, outdoor play, and teamwork as key factors in teaching children to manage life’s inevitable stressors.

The Importance of Starting Early

The way in which our brain develops has ensured that we are arguably the most successful species on the planet. We have achieved this status because of our brain’s ability to “wire itself” in response to the environmental conditions it encounters.

Human babies are born way too soon compared to other species (who walk and operate independently within hours of being born). Our synaptic and neuronal development within the brain explodes during the first year of life, and then something rather curious starts to happen. Those same synapses begin to “prune” themselves. The connections that are used frequently remain and strengthen (just like a well-exercised muscle), and those that are unused wither and drop away.

Hence the concept of “critical periods” – if you don’t learn a skill at the most sensitive age, the ability to learn it later is compromised or possibly even lost forever (e.g., think of bilinguals vs late-learners of a second language).

So what does this extraordinary process of neural pruning and sensitive periods mean for our growing children? How can we capitalise on this knowledge to provide the best possible environment for them to grow into successful adults? Well, the kind of play opportunities and play spaces we provide in their early years is an enormously important first step.

As we grow older and begin to navigate our environments with increased sophistication, the majority of humans get a kick out of feeling effective and in control of themselves in their surroundings (remember the look of glee on your child’s face when they took their first steps, mastered a puzzle?). Most humans also prefer to exercise free will in choosing activities that appeal to them. These two crucial factors in building psychological well-being are referred to by psychologists as “competence” and “autonomy”.

The kind of play experiences that help cultivate the development of both competence and autonomy are found via a moderately but genuinely challenging environment, where children can test their abilities in self-assessment, problem-solving, risk-taking, and adaptation in response to challenge and failure. These experiences are particularly crucial during critical or sensitive periods when the brain is most receptive.

Challenge comes with risk. Occasionally that risk can be quite traumatic (e.g., a broken limb, concussion). However contrary to popular belief, research has shown that the hyper-sanitised, risk-averse play culture we have lately created for our children may well be counterproductive. When the Sydney Playground Project released children into a playground with 44 gallon drums, old milk cartons, ropes and other certain death traps they observed a reduction in fighting and bullying. These results were supported by New Zealand research that demonstrated a drop, I repeat, drop in serious injuries (along with bullying) when the playground “rule book” was thrown out.

Why?  Because children can and will learn to take responsibility for their own safety if you let them.  So when we withhold from our children the opportunity to take risks, learn from their failures, discover coping techniques that are adaptive and problem-focussed, we withhold from them the opportunity to learn.   Their growing brains fail to develop autonomy, competence, self-discipline, good decision making, good self-assessment of ability, high failure tolerance, and a smorgasbord of other cognitive and psychological benefits.

In hyper-sanitising play experiences, we “hardwire” our children to become psychologically fragile, fearful, avoidant and helpless in the face of challenge and failure; rather than facilitating their opportunities to innovate, problem-solve, bounce back from failure and adapt as they go forth to meet life’s inevitable challenges.

Forest Kindergartens

There are some movements internationally that seek to capitalise on the promising approach of getting back to nature.  Forest kindergartens in Europe have children spending their day in an unstructured environment: rain, hail or shine. The children play with knives (real knives), learn how to light fires, climb trees and ropes unaided and without safety nets, fall in water and get muddy. Interestingly there is little adult intervention when they get into social squabbles (including throwing sticks and stones at each other), instead they are left to work things out among themselves (learning social skills).

Back to basics – how nature can help

In our eagerness to protect against largely imagined non-threats, we have counterproductively introduced a downstream raft of highly problematic outcomes.  In one short generation we’ve gone from 73% to 13% of children spending more time playing outside than inside; with only one in five of today’s children having climbed a tree…Currently, maximum security prisoners are mandated more outside time than the average Australian child spends outdoors, with obvious implications.

It’s time to get back to basics to build a stronger, more resilient child to prepare them for the world of adulthood. Here are some ideas to work with in your education setting to get children off to a good start.

  • Encourage children to play in the dirt: exposure to bacteria found in dirt, is extremely good for children, and shows links to better mental health and lowered rates of obesity.  Have a mud pit, and warn parents to pack a second change of clothes.
  • Limit processed food “products” and ensure children have access to unprocessed foods, primarily fresh fruit, vegetables and lots of them. A good diet has now been found to be as efficacious in the treatment of depression as medication.
  • Get children playing outside, lots. Exercise has been found to strongly protect against depression. Even more interestingly, outdoor play might hold the power to change the trajectory of their brain development for the better. For example, children who live closer to a park, and have access to open green spaces show a lower risk of developing ADHD.
  • Improving access to open green spaces either on site or via excursion is a great addition to any education program. Avoid plastic-fantastic, fake, cotton-woolled playgrounds and encourage children back into their natural surroundings. Proximity to green spaces has also been shown to buffer stressful events and improve a child’s capacity to self-regulate.

Mother Nature is a seriously tough-love parent, and in the face of challenge and failure, children will learn important skills of adaptation and emotional regulation – which in short, will put some fight in the dog.

Create opportunities to help children stay connected to the real world, build genuine friendships with actual people, develop their imagination, and learn how to negotiate, adapt and overcome challenges. Quite simply, preparing a child for adulthood within the biological cradle of nature ensures the best foundation to learn, overcome and succeed.


More practical ideas for educators can be found here: nature back into play

Rachael Sharman

Dr Rachael Sharman is a lecturer and researcher in psychology, specialising in child/adolescent development. Rachael's research is focused on the optimal and healthy development of the paediatric brain, and has covered the psychological and cognitive impacts of: dietary practices of parents and their children; physical activity; obesity; autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; phenylketonuria; depression; concussion; acquired brain injury; childhood trauma.