Nature play for young children: Benefits and barriers


In a short period of time, regular contact with nature has become scarce for children. Childhood experiences with nature have changed due to busy lifestyles, new technologies, urban growth, and safety concerns. Evidence shows that these changes can compromise children’s short- and long-term development. Concurrently, research is demonstrating that spending time in nature benefits children’s development and wellbeing.

In this presentation, we explore a specific type of play, called nature play, for young children (0 – 5 years). The presentation is based on the findings of a rapid literature review and evidence synthesis of Australian and international studies.

The presentation contains 4 main themes. First, we describe what nature play looks like, including: (1) characteristics of being freely chosen, child-led and unstructured, and (2) involving interactions with natural elements such as trees, rocks, and water.  Nature play tends to be physical, imaginative, and sensory-rich. Children of all ages, including in their early years, can participate in nature play.

Secondly, we discuss how nature play benefits children. Evidence shows that nature play is associated with improvements in child physical and mental development, better self-confidence, and positive emotions such as joy. We highlight some key elements of successful initiatives to enhance the wellbeing of children through nature play.

In the third part of the presentation, we provide insight into key factors impacting child engagement in nature play, including: (1) access to green spaces; (2) child-related characteristics (such as shyness, confidence or preference for being outdoors); and (3) parent health and safety concerns (including perceptions of child capacity and risk management strategies).

This presentation will conclude with some practice and service delivery insights about ways practitioners can support parents to involve young children in nature play including: (a) discussing or providing information about benefits of nature play and listening to parent concerns around safety or risk; and (b) workshopping strategies with parents to keep children safe and to create nature play opportunities.

A key contribution of this presentation is to raise awareness about the benefits of nature play, factors that may impact whether young children engage in nature play, and to highlight ways practitioners can support parents to include nature play in everyday play activities with their children.


Alla, K., Butler, K., & MacDonald, J. B. (2024). Nature play for young children: Benefits and barriers. Family & Relationship Services Conference, 13–16 May. Melbourne, Australia. (Paper)