Why natural playgrounds are essential for young children

From infancy through childhood, unscripted outdoor free play is crucial for children’s physical, emotional, social, and cognitive well-being. These early years of exploration and discovery for naturally curious children also lay the foundation for developing healthy movement skills and physical literacy for life.

In today’s increasingly urbanized world, where children’s lives are more structured and scheduled than ever before, one way to encourage active outdoor play is through natural playgrounds. These spaces and their diverse features offer valuable opportunities for experimentation, the development of physical literacy, and the encouragement of healthy and positive relationships with nature.

At nature-based playgrounds, children can crawl up and roll down hills, mix soil and water into a magical concoction, stomp through puddles, and practice their balance as they totter along logs and stumps, arms outstretched in a game of Follow the Leader. All ages and abilities can interact and learn together, developing their collaborative play, language, and problem-solving skills.

Natural playgrounds have also been linked to longer play sessions and children engaging in more aerobic and bone and muscle-strengthening activities than when using traditionally constructed playgrounds.

“Natural environments represent dynamic and rough playscapes… The topography, like slopes and rocks, afford natural obstacles that children have to cope with. The vegetation provides shelters and trees for climbing. The meadows are for running and tumbling.”

–Ingunn Fjørtoft in Early Childhood Education Journal

The authors of a 2017 study noted that given the number of waking hours that children spend in daycare, these centres’ outdoor spaces are often the primary outdoor play experience for many preschoolers. Increasingly, early childhood centres and educators are embracing natural playgrounds versus the traditional out-of-the-box, post-and-platform equipment that has been the norm for the past few decades.

But is there really a difference in play value and children’s health and well-being when playing in traditional out-of-the-catalogue playgrounds versus natural playgrounds?

Research and early childcare educators say yes!


Related read: Let them get dirty and other tips for getting kids active in nature


As an extension of the classroom, outdoor spaces with natural features stimulate discovery and exploration—how does clover grow? Do puddles splash? Does wet bark smell good?—and uniquely engage children in play-based learning where skills are achieved naturally.

This video from Scotland shows how transformative natural playgrounds can be for educators and children:

Playground photo courtesy of Revelstoke Child Care Society.

One response to “Why natural playgrounds are essential for young children

  1. This is an amazing video and very inspiring! I just wanna watch it so many times. It’s for sure applicable anywhere, I had this idea for Kenya and it gave me most of the pieces I needed. Thanks team

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

[gravityforms id=12 title="false" description="false" ajax="true"]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_12' ><div id='gf_12' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_12' id='gform_12' action='/natural-playgrounds-for-young-children/#gf_12' > <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_12' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_12_6" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_12_6' >Nom</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_6' id='input_12_6' type='text' value='' class='large' placeholder='Votre nom' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_12_7" class="gfield email gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_12_7' >Courriel<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_7' id='input_12_7' type='text' value='' class='large' placeholder='Votre adresse courriel' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_12_9" class="gfield hidden scroll-subscriber field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_12_9' >Scroll Subscriber</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_9' id='input_12_9' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_12_8" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >Je suis un éducateur, un entraîneur ou un animateur en loisirs</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_12_8'><li class='gchoice gchoice_12_8_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_8.1' type='checkbox' value='Oui, veuillez aussi m’envoyer l’infolettre semestrielle d’Actif pour la vie pour les professionnels.' id='choice_12_8_1' /> <label for='choice_12_8_1' id='label_12_8_1'>Oui, veuillez aussi m’envoyer l’infolettre semestrielle d’Actif pour la vie pour les professionnels.</label> </li></ul></div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_12' class='gform_button button' value='Abonnez-vous à notre bulletin' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_12"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_12"]=true; ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_12"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_12"]=true; jQuery("#gform_12").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=12&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_12' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='12' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_12' value='WyJbXSIsImU4MmE1N2RiNzRiMTQ1ZjVhOGQ3OWQwZmVkOTFkNjRiIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_12' id='gform_target_page_number_12' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_12' id='gform_source_page_number_12' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> <p style="display: none !important;"><label>&#916;<textarea name="ak_hp_textarea" cols="45" rows="8" maxlength="100"></textarea></label><input type="hidden" id="ak_js" name="ak_js" value="61"/><script>document.getElementById( "ak_js" ).setAttribute( "value", ( new Date() ).getTime() );</script></p></form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_12' id='gform_ajax_frame_12' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script type='text/javascript'>gform.initializeOnLoaded( function() {gformInitSpinner( 12, 'https://activeforlife.com/content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_12').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_12');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_12').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_12').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_12').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_12').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_12').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_12').val();gformInitSpinner( 12, 'https://activeforlife.com/content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [12, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_12'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_12').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_12').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [12]);window['gf_submitting_12'] = false;wp.a11y.speak(jQuery('#gform_confirmation_message_12').text());}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_12').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [12, current_page]);} );} );</script>
[gravityforms id=11 title="false" description="false" ajax="true"]
<div class='gf_browser_unknown gform_wrapper gform_legacy_markup_wrapper' id='gform_wrapper_11' ><div id='gf_11' class='gform_anchor' tabindex='-1'></div><form method='post' enctype='multipart/form-data' target='gform_ajax_frame_11' id='gform_11' action='/natural-playgrounds-for-young-children/#gf_11' > <div class='gform_body gform-body'><ul id='gform_fields_11' class='gform_fields top_label form_sublabel_below description_below'><li id="field_11_2" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_11_2' >Name</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_2' id='input_11_2' type='text' value='' class='large' placeholder='Your name' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_11_1" class="gfield email gfield_contains_required field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_11_1' >Email<span class="gfield_required"><span class="gfield_required gfield_required_asterisk">*</span></span></label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_email'> <input name='input_1' id='input_11_1' type='text' value='' class='large' placeholder='Your email address' aria-required="true" aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_11_4" class="gfield hidden scroll-subscriber field_sublabel_below field_description_below gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label' for='input_11_4' >Scroll Subscriber</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_text'><input name='input_4' id='input_11_4' type='text' value='' class='medium' aria-invalid="false" /> </div></li><li id="field_11_3" class="gfield field_sublabel_below field_description_below hidden_label gfield_visibility_visible" ><label class='gfield_label gfield_label_before_complex' >I&#039;m an educator, coach, or rec leader</label><div class='ginput_container ginput_container_checkbox'><ul class='gfield_checkbox' id='input_11_3'><li class='gchoice gchoice_11_3_1'> <input class='gfield-choice-input' name='input_3.1' type='checkbox' value='Yes, please also send me the biannual AfL Pro Newsletter for educators, coaches and rec leaders' id='choice_11_3_1' /> <label for='choice_11_3_1' id='label_11_3_1'>Yes, please also send me the biannual AfL Pro Newsletter for educators, coaches and rec leaders</label> </li></ul></div></li></ul></div> <div class='gform_footer top_label'> <input type='submit' id='gform_submit_button_11' class='gform_button button' value='Subscribe now' onclick='if(window["gf_submitting_11"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_11"]=true; ' onkeypress='if( event.keyCode == 13 ){ if(window["gf_submitting_11"]){return false;} window["gf_submitting_11"]=true; jQuery("#gform_11").trigger("submit",[true]); }' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_ajax' value='form_id=11&amp;title=&amp;description=&amp;tabindex=0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='is_submit_11' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_submit' value='11' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_unique_id' value='' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='state_11' value='WyJbXSIsImU4MmE1N2RiNzRiMTQ1ZjVhOGQ3OWQwZmVkOTFkNjRiIl0=' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_target_page_number_11' id='gform_target_page_number_11' value='0' /> <input type='hidden' class='gform_hidden' name='gform_source_page_number_11' id='gform_source_page_number_11' value='1' /> <input type='hidden' name='gform_field_values' value='' /> </div> <p style="display: none !important;"><label>&#916;<textarea name="ak_hp_textarea" cols="45" rows="8" maxlength="100"></textarea></label><input type="hidden" id="ak_js" name="ak_js" value="4"/><script>document.getElementById( "ak_js" ).setAttribute( "value", ( new Date() ).getTime() );</script></p></form> </div> <iframe style='display:none;width:0px;height:0px;' src='about:blank' name='gform_ajax_frame_11' id='gform_ajax_frame_11' title='This iframe contains the logic required to handle Ajax powered Gravity Forms.'></iframe> <script type='text/javascript'>gform.initializeOnLoaded( function() {gformInitSpinner( 11, 'https://activeforlife.com/content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery('#gform_ajax_frame_11').on('load',function(){var contents = jQuery(this).contents().find('*').html();var is_postback = contents.indexOf('GF_AJAX_POSTBACK') >= 0;if(!is_postback){return;}var form_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_wrapper_11');var is_confirmation = jQuery(this).contents().find('#gform_confirmation_wrapper_11').length > 0;var is_redirect = contents.indexOf('gformRedirect(){') >= 0;var is_form = form_content.length > 0 && ! is_redirect && ! is_confirmation;var mt = parseInt(jQuery('html').css('margin-top'), 10) + parseInt(jQuery('body').css('margin-top'), 10) + 100;if(is_form){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_11').html(form_content.html());if(form_content.hasClass('gform_validation_error')){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_11').addClass('gform_validation_error');} else {jQuery('#gform_wrapper_11').removeClass('gform_validation_error');}setTimeout( function() { /* delay the scroll by 50 milliseconds to fix a bug in chrome */ jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gform_wrapper_11').offset().top - mt); }, 50 );if(window['gformInitDatepicker']) {gformInitDatepicker();}if(window['gformInitPriceFields']) {gformInitPriceFields();}var current_page = jQuery('#gform_source_page_number_11').val();gformInitSpinner( 11, 'https://activeforlife.com/content/plugins/gravityforms/images/spinner.svg' );jQuery(document).trigger('gform_page_loaded', [11, current_page]);window['gf_submitting_11'] = false;}else if(!is_redirect){var confirmation_content = jQuery(this).contents().find('.GF_AJAX_POSTBACK').html();if(!confirmation_content){confirmation_content = contents;}setTimeout(function(){jQuery('#gform_wrapper_11').replaceWith(confirmation_content);jQuery(document).scrollTop(jQuery('#gf_11').offset().top - mt);jQuery(document).trigger('gform_confirmation_loaded', [11]);window['gf_submitting_11'] = false;wp.a11y.speak(jQuery('#gform_confirmation_message_11').text());}, 50);}else{jQuery('#gform_11').append(contents);if(window['gformRedirect']) {gformRedirect();}}jQuery(document).trigger('gform_post_render', [11, current_page]);} );} );</script>