Guy Smith

Developing ecological understanding through play

Sam Crosby (Botanic Gardens & Centennial Parklands, NSW)

A six-year-old girl goes wandering under the Casuarina trees; she stops every now and then to collect something from the ground, place it in her pocket and continue with her exploration. Around her the wind whips up some whistles from the branchlets in the trees and the birds sing. Once her pockets can’t seem to take any more treasures, she heads back to her friends and the objects are laid out on the ground. Other parts are added from her friends’ explorations — sticks, seeds, leaves and stones. The loose parts are manipulated, sorted and arranged into patterns, shapes and as metaphorical symbols. Pieces of nature could become a magic crystal at one time and then a bird nest the next. The only limitation to this play is the edges of the children’s collective minds, as they set the boundaries of where the games and role play can go. 

The scenario described above is one that could be considered “Nature Play”. Nature play is self-directed intrinsic ecological exploration, where children develop an understanding of their world through awe and wonder alongside imaginary and sensory engagement. Nature play is an embodied practice that engages the whole body, mind and soul and is fundamental to developing environmental and ecological understanding. 

Nature play can include a wide range of activities, from building cubby houses, climbing trees, mud play, hunting for insects and playing imaginary games. The type of play is influenced by the affordances that the environment around them evokes. This can include the weather conditions, seasonal patterns and the flora and fauna in the habitats around them. 

The role of adults in nature play is to help children develop a sense of curiosity, to enable them to take calculated risks and to provide kids with the time and space to engage with the world around them. Educating in this field is a fascinating experience, observing how the landscape invites a variety of games and conversations, and how with time the children slowly start to widen their knowledge of animals and plants, and develop their emotional connection to the natural world. 

Nature play is not a formal way of learning; the ecological understanding is not developed through taught lessons or from the knowledge of the educator. It comes from when children have the freedom and time to undergo their own enquiries whilst being playful and supported by adults. 

Centennial Parklands, Sydney, is one place where nature play is at the forefront of its environmental education. The Ian Potter WILD PLAY garden, which opened in 2018, has since had thousands of people. With over 12,000 plants laid out in different habitats, and play affordances including water and sand, the garden is a man-made environment that aims to replicate lost nature play spaces in an urban environment. 

An evaluation project found that children and families responded with enthusiastic engagement to the nature-rich playscapes and activities they encountered. Responses to the survey questions posed as part of the evaluation showed that the WILD PLAY garden provides opportunities and spaces for outdoor nature play that are widely appreciated by a cross section of the local community. The garden provides an invitation to explore, and children respond with curiosity and imagination. 

Although the WILD PLAY garden is a man-made nature play environment, its nature engagement was widely reported as a reason for visiting. Parents understood the benefits of nature connection for developing ecological understanding in their children and made conscious choices to ensure their children can make these connections by letting them play. It may be that in urban environments where most of the population live, man-made nature playscapes can still provide a degree of ecological understanding where natural environments are no longer accessible. 

Nature play has been around for as long as there have been children and nature. It has been a fundamental part of ecological learning in most cultures throughout the world. It doesn’t require equipment, technology or an academic level of knowledge in ecology. Today the importance of nature play to counteract a growing disconnect to the natural world is crucial for its stewardship. It requires access to nature, time and a level of trust and understanding that children will do what they will always do when they get time to play amongst the trees and the birds: learn to love and care for each other and the world around them. 

For more information, contact Sam (

Read more from the September 2020 edition of the ESA Bulletin.