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What is Natural Play?

McNeill Mann | Brevard, NC

“If you’ve ever climbed trees, rolled down hills, scrambled up rocks, made mud pies, dammed up water, hidden in grass, dug in sand, played in dirt, jumped in leaves, or had fun outside in other, similar ways, you’ve experienced natural play.” Ron King, Natural Playgrounds Company

Natural play can take on many forms, but at its core, it is self-directed, imaginative play in outside spaces that include elements of the natural world. It is exploring and discovering; it is building and demolishing; it is creating and imagining; it is interacting with the environment in hands-on, physics testing, common-sense-building ways.

At Mountain Sun School natural play is woven into our days. Classes have regular, unstructured time outside where students create their own games, note the changes in the landscape, use their senses to explore, solve problems, and build relationships as they play.

What are Natural Play spaces?

Natural play spaces can be created or found almost anywhere–to some degree the adventure is in the eye of the player! From an untended corner in the backyard that feels “wild,” to a creek by a trail in the National Forest, natural spaces big and small are around us. These are spaces where children (and adults!) can interact freely with the natural world. Of course, some spaces are more engaging than others, and some are better designed for the impact of many little feet and hands. I found this Natural Resources Department’s delineation of two types of natural play spaces helpful: 1) Off-trail play areas, and 2) Natural playscapes. Here’s how they they define the two types of spaces:

1) Off-Trail Play Areas: Designated and defined sections of existing natural area parks where children are allowed and encouraged to play off-trail.

2) Natural Playscapes: Hybrids of traditional play areas and natural areas, which consist of a designed and constructed site that incorporates natural materials and emulates natural principles and processes.

At MSCS we have an abundance of “Off-trail” spaces where the main attraction IS the woods or creek or rhodo tunnel network. Our students regularly play in the woods next to The Pavillion by Sonata Lake, in “ Check Mark Forrest,” and at “Upper Henry Creek.” These spaces feel wild and encourage a sense of freedom and exploration. There are almost no human-made elements. In these designated spaces we accept a certain level of impact from our exploring, but generally stick to leave no trace principles. This helps to maintain their “wildness” and encourages students to develop good wilderness ethics for future trips further abroad.

In addition to our wild spaces, we have designated some spaces as our more impacted natural playscapes; these areas have or will have human-made elements and be designed to be engaging and educational. MSCS has enlisted NC State’s Natural Learning Initiative (NLI) to create a master design of our campus, especially focused on our natural playscapes, or Outdoor Learning Environments (OLEs) as NLI calls them. We are midway through the design process with NLI, having completed stakeholder surveys, a variety of student-design projects, and a teacher design workshop. The NLI team has loads of information from MSCS, about our land, our community, and how the two interact. Now they are translating all of it into a design of our OLEs!

Why is Natural Play Important?

The amount of research documenting the benefits of children engaging in self-directed play in nature is astounding! Here are just a few research-supported reasons natural play is important (from NLI factsheet):

  • Supports Problem-Solving. Play in nature is especially important for developing capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and intellectual development.
  • Increases Physical Activity. Children who experience school grounds with diverse natural settings are more physically active, more aware of nutrition, more civil to each other, and more creative.
  • Improves Social Relations. Children will be smarter, better able to get along with others, healthier and happier when they have regular opportunities for free and unstructured play in the out-of-doors.
  • Reduces Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) Symptoms. Contact with the natural world can significantly reduce symptoms of attention deficit disorder in children as young as five years old.

If you want to take a deeper dive into natural play, here are two more websites to explore:

I’ll end with two quotes; first NLI’s Director, Robin Moore, pulled from Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. “Children live through their senses. Sensory experiences link the child’s exterior world with their interior, hidden, affective worlds. Since the natural environment is the principal source of sensory stimulation, freedom to explore and play with the outdoor environment through the senses in their own space and time is essential for healthy development…. This type of self-activated, autonomous interaction is what we call free play. Individual children test themselves by interacting with their environment, activating their potential and reconstructing human culture.”

And just as important, from a MSCS student when asked why he likes recess in the woods:

“Because it makes me feel free and like I can do what I want–like there are no rules.”

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