The impacts of unstructured nature play on health in early childhood development: A systematic review




Nature play is growing in popularity as children’s play spaces are transforming from traditional playgrounds into more nature-based play spaces with considerable financial and resource investment from government bodies. This has resulted in the re-development of children’s play spaces to incorporate more natural elements such as trees, plants and rocks. Despite this, it is unclear whether there is empirical evidence to support claims that play in nature is beneficial for child health and development.


To conduct a systematic review examining the impacts of nature play on the health and developmental outcomes of children aged 2–12 years.


Seven electronic databases were searched (MEDLINE, ERIC, Embase, PsycINFO, The Cochrane Library, The Joanna Briggs Institute and Emcare) from inception to July/August 2018 (search updated July/August 2019). The Inclusion criteria were children aged 2–12 years with no health/developmental conditions. The exposure/intervention of interest was unstructured, free play in nature. Critical appraisal of included studies was conducted using the McMaster Critical Appraisal Tool. Descriptive synthesis was then undertaken using the NHMRC FORM Framework.


Out of 2927 articles identified, 16 studies met the inclusion criteria. The nature play exposure/intervention was heterogeneously described, and a plethora of outcome measures were used. Nature play had consistent positive impacts on physical activity outcomes and cognitive play behaviours (imaginative and dramatic play). However, there remain some concerns regarding the quality of the evidence base, heterogeneity in intervention description and parameters in the outcome measures used.


While the positive impacts of nature play were encouraging in terms of physical activity and cognitive development, nature play stakeholders should focus on producing a universal definition for nature play, the development of standardised outcome measures and the conduct of robust research designs. Implications of these findings suggest the need for the development of standardised guidelines to inform practice and policy in the design of children’s play spaces in different contexts.

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About S. R. Zelenz 119 Articles
S.R. Zelenz has worked in education for 20 years. Working with students from all walks of life, cultures, races, and social diversity, Zelenz’s research in Educational Leadership led to finding a better way to approach learning for students with trauma histories. Many were juvenile offenders, gang members, diagnosed with varying behavioral disorders, or had family histories of violence, murder, or narcissistic parenting. This research could not be effectively accomplished without further understanding: how epigenetic trauma inheritance may be impacting these students; how brain development from trauma may be impacting their behavioral and emotional development; as well as deep understanding of psychology and its varying classifications for behavioral and personality disorders. The goal is to find solutions for changing the conversation and making a real difference for these students. She has also worked with nonprofits of varying focus areas for the last 25 years. Her undergraduate degree in Arts Administration and Music prepared her for managing nonprofits of any size as well as procuring funding so that they can achieve their goals. Pairing her nonprofit background with her education background, she has been able to make a difference for over 200 nonprofits worldwide, written curriculum for schools across the globe, and assisted many arts organizations through performance and management.