Dangers In ‘Nature Play Deficit’

Cute little girl runs a paper boat in the stream in the park. Stretching her hand and reaching the little ship

Guidance for parents and communities

 By Martin Oliver

In 2005, American author Richard Louv introduced the loss of outdoor play to a mass audience with his book Last Child in the Woods, and at the same time he coined the term ‘nature deficit disorder’ that has since embedded itself in popular culture.

Figures from the environment group Planet Ark show that one generation ago 73 per cent of children (aged 3 to 12) played outdoors more than indoors. This figure has fallen dramatically and is now only 35 per cent.

Habit forming apps

Many young people in affluent countries have grown up immersed in technology. Most Australian children own a smartphone, a device that tops the addictive stakes due to its portability, interactive qualities, and habit-forming game apps such as Candy Crush Saga. Tablets and pads are not far behind.

A survey of American children aged between 3 and 12 found that 27 per cent of their time is occupied with electronic media, compared to 1 per cent spent outside, which also includes structured and organised activities that have little in common with play. An Australian statistic shows children spending, on average, around five hours a day with technology.

‘Heavy electronic gadget use restricts access to fresh air, encourages obesity, can lead to anxiety and depression, and encourages short-sightedness…

This type of heavy electronic gadget use restricts access to fresh air, encourages obesity, can lead to anxiety and depression, and encourages short-sightedness unless it is balanced out by time spent in outdoor environments. Obesity is on the rise in many developed countries, and in Australia the latest figures indicate that about a quarter of children are either overweight or obese.

For more hardcore users, there is a troubling issue of loss of connection with the real world, when fictitious entertainment, online and gaming worlds are considered more stimulating, and sometimes even more valid, than the reality outside the front door.

In 2015, the Oxford Junior Dictionary, a publication aimed at seven-year-olds, removed numerous words for plants and animals, while adding technological terms such as ‘broadband’, ‘cut and paste’, and ‘analogue’. The editors were trying to be values-neutral, reflecting a weakening connection between young children and nature. Worse, they were also hastening the disconnection. These are important issues, and there is an argument for taking a stand rather than being a passive observer.

Our risk-aversion culture

It is not just technology that is slanting the playing field against outdoors play in nature. Other factors include:

  • Unhelpful government attitudes. Where children are allowed to roam independently, some authorities consider this to be a form of neglect, a conclusion strongly rejected by many parents. Queensland law prohibits children under 12 from being unsupervised, and in Miles, two parents were fined for allowing their kids to walk to school. This is a sign of a culture that has been heavily infiltrated by risk-aversion.
  • Access to natural areas is a challenge in Australia, given that it is one of the world’s most urbanised countries. Suitable natural spaces are often a car ride away, which acts as a deterrent for busy parents. This urbanisation trend is occurring worldwide.
  • Children having less unstructured free time, often because of an increase in scheduled after-school activities.
  • A media-driven fear of crime. Media saturation means a substantial exposure to negative news broadcasts that are watched by both children and adults. While risks to children should never be dismissed, the reality is that crime rates have been going down.
  • The real risk of being sued has restricted the types of outdoor play that are permitted in some places.
  • A change in attitude to very minor injuries such as scratches and bruises. Helicopter parents are more likely to want to protect their children from getting hurt, and the term ‘cotton wool kids’ is now in common usage.
  • Neurotic attitudes towards cleanliness being projected onto children, or similar worries about their expensive clothes being damaged.

Get dirty, get healthy

‘Exposure to dirt leads to the colonisation of the digestive system with beneficial bacteria, while overly clean and sterile environments inhibit this process’

 Where these hurdles have been crossed, nature play offers children a wide range of benefits, including improved health and enhanced mental and emotional wellbeing. Being physically active outdoors aids aspects of development such as motor skills, flexibility and agility. Concentration and academic performance are boosted. Personal and social development are helped, creativity is encouraged, and ADHD symptoms are ameliorated. Best of all, it is enjoyable.

In recent years, it has become recognised that children who get dirty are also getting healthy. Exposure to dirt leads to the colonisation of the digestive system with beneficial bacteria, while overly clean and sterile environments inhibit this process. Children who have these bacteria are less vulnerable to conditions such as asthma and allergies. In addition, good bacteria also prompt the brain to release serotonin, a mood-enhancing neurotransmitter.

Children are naturally adventurous and curious, and the richness and complexity of nature has the scope to engage their innate sense of wonder in a way that the human-made world cannot match. In terms of environmental awareness, appreciating nature as a child encourages a greater interest in the stewardship of the natural environment in later life. No longer a theory, this has been backed up by a recent University of British Columbia study.

Outdoor activity also has the effect of growing their resilience. Children who play in nature are less likely to be injured in the schoolyard, and would probably fare better if they unexpectedly found themselves having to survive in the bush.

Design a nature play setup

There is an important distinction that emphasises playing with nature, as opposed to just playing in it. This means self-directed, unsupervised play, with adults taking a back seat, where kids can engage in hands-on interaction with what surrounds them.

Some nature play advocates recommend avoiding designing spaces that are too tame, unimaginative and risk-averse, resulting in natural play areas that resemble the local neighbourhood park. This is a world away from an area of wild bushland where children can largely do whatever they want, and can get messy in the dirt.

Green Hearts, an American group that promotes nature play, closed its doors recently but still has on its website a wealth of imaginative ideas for designing play spaces that children will love and want to engage with. These include elements such as an artificial hillock; narrow pathways running through tall grass; secret hiding places that children can spy outwards from; shrubberies as hiding places; a log (fixed into position to prevent it from rolling); rocks; a large pile of dirt for digging; a hammock; and materials for children to do their own crude constructions, making structures such as cubby houses and forts. Other ideas include a sensory nature trail that can engage as many of the senses as possible.

For schools, local governments, and community groups interested in creating an outdoor nature play set-up of their own, the Western Australian authorities have created a suggested checklist, in the following priority order:

  • Work out the objectives.
  • Do the planning, and know which regulations apply.
  • Don’t be too risk-averse, as this robs children of engaging in challenging experiences.
  • Consult with children and adults about what they are looking for.
  • Consider the need for infrastructure such as toilets, parking, and signage.
  • Plan ahead and ensure plants will be maintained into the future.

Academic performance

‘One solution to a suburban existence is… ‘kidscaping’ by transforming back gardens into more imaginative vegetated spaces that children will enjoy’

In Australia, Dr Kathleen Bagot has been researching the goal of incorporating natural spaces into school playgrounds, as a means of improving academic performance and wellbeing. A link has been observed between the presence of vegetation in school grounds, and factors such as concentration, creative play, and the incidence of play involving both boys and girls.

One solution to a suburban existence where natural play opportunities are inconvenient to access, is to bring them home. Green Hearts suggests ‘kidscaping’ by transforming back gardens into more imaginative vegetated spaces that children will enjoy.

As play is a tactile experience, it is worth taking a few precautions by avoiding the use of chemical-treated timber in play areas, and educating kids about risks such as snakes and spiders, and other natural hazards.

Australia’s new play zones

State and territory governments, especially in Western Australia, South Australia, Queensland and the ACT, are taking proactive steps to support outdoor play. In 2015, South Australia announced plans for 20 preschoolers’ outdoor play areas, and many other local initiatives are in the works.

Notable existing play zones include Naturescape, located inside King’s Park, West Perth. Opened in 2011, this covers about six hectares of bushland. Its range of features includes a running creek with rocky banks, log bridges, tree hides, a cubby building zone, bridges, and meandering paths. These are combined with an environmental learning centre. However, until 2018 Naturescape will be shut while works are carried out to enlarge it.

Another similar area in Melbourne is Nature Play in Royal Park, which in 2016 was awarded the prestigious title of Australia’s best playground by the Australian Institute of Landscape Architects. It provides children with some scope to take risks, and has a water play area where they can pump and dam water.

Meanwhile, it is important to continue spreading the nature play message to as many families as possible, and one way that this is being done is through International Mud Day, held on June 29th every year.

Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.




Last Child in the Woods – www.richardlouv.com/books/last-child
Nature Play WA – www.natureplaywa.org.au
Nature Play Queensland – www.natureplayqld.org.au
Nature Play SA – www.natureplaysa.org.au
Nature Play Canberra  – www.natureplaycbr.org.au
Children and Nature Network – www.childrenandnature.org
Green Hearts – www.greenheartsinc.org