Screen time ditched for green time as nature play takes off

It wasn’t that long ago when the concept of “nature play” involved parents yelling “get outside” to their kids.

But as Australians’ lifestyles change, with higher density living and evolving technology, more time-poor parents are turning to businesses offering guided, yet unstructured, play for their children to experience the great outdoors.

Bundaberg lawyer and mother-of-two, Rahel Clarke, embraced a nature playgroup while looking for activities she could do with her two-year-old daughter, Isla Proctor.

Ms Clarke said the outdoor free-play sessions had a positive impact on her daughter and the benefits flowed on.

“Isla really loves it and she sleeps well after, which is great,” Ms Clarke said.

“She’s really calm and happy and she loves just being able to do her own thing.”

The concept involves parents and caregivers following their children around a large bush park, interacting with creeks and trees.

Former teacher Leanne Webster, who started a nature play business in the region, said she wanted to be “part of the solution” and advocate for children to have more freedom to play.

“It’s gone from zero to 100 in eight weeks,” Ms Webster said.

“I have new families joining every week because children need to be outside.”

She said it was great for children’s mental health.

“But it is also great for their resilience — kids climbing trees, creeks, not giving up, they are learning life skills in play,” she said.

Ms Webster uses public spaces, such as parks and beaches, for classes that cater to different age groups.

She said children needed at least three hours of free play every day to build creativity, imagination, and deeper thinking.

“They just need to be outside,” she said.

School offers ‘freedom’
In the coastal Queensland town of Agnes Water, the local state school has a fenced-off area that, at a glance, looks like a piece of scrub.

Upon closer inspection, forts made from palm fronds, piles of sticks and rocks make up Agnes Water State School’s enviro-play area.

Principal Tim Loughland said it was the school’s cheapest playground and the kids loved it.

“We have three big playgrounds and another outside our prep room and we’ve still got kids asking me constantly if the enviro-play area is open,” he said.

“They just want to go and play with sticks, rocks, and palm fronds.”

The enviro-play space was created by the school’s former principal, Trevor Buchanan, but Mr Loughland said he was keen to keep it going after witnessing the benefits in the behaviour of children.

“We see some of our more challenging students going down there and you can see their demeanour just brightens,” Mr Loughland said.

“They have got the freedom to manipulate the space.

“We offer a variety of methods of teaching and it’s one way we give the kids freedom to explore and connect with the environment, and when they come back into the structured environment, they are more able to do it.”

Mr Loughland said word had caught on in other schools.

“People are hearing about it and starting to ask questions,” he said.

“I just look at them and go, ‘It’s a corner and it has palm fronds and rocks and sticks’.

“There is nothing else to it, it’s such an easy concept.”

Children learn about food
Elizabeth Pohlmann greets people barefoot at the gate to her family property in the Fraser Coast town of Howard.

Three of her five children are also shoeless as they tear around on bikes, surrounded by chickens, goats, pigs, and market gardens.

The family moved to the property just over three years ago.

Ms Pohlmann then opened a “nature connection program” for school-aged children to allow them to connect with food production and the environment.

“It’s OK to get muddy and dirty and have squishy feet,” Ms Pohlmann said.

“We have kids coming in with anxiety, but these kids don’t do that here — because it’s nature and it is healing.”

The medical scientist runs permaculture and sustainability programs on the farm using child-led, interest-based learning.

She said the farm animals helped teach empathy and understanding and children were encouraged to learn through experience.

“We need to allow kids to explore on their own and make mistakes because they learn from those mistakes,” Ms Pohlmann said.

“Children need space, not just space outdoors and in nature but space to make mistakes, take risks, and explore.

“That is how kids learn, through play.”

Ms Pohlmann and Ms Webster said it was important for parents to be present, but also provide freedom.

“As adults, we step in too quickly. We need to be able to observe,” Ms Webster said.

“If you just step back and stop talking while your child is playing, you will be amazed by what that can achieve.

“Follow their lead and trust your child.”