Teachers say they want support for more ‘nature play’ in primary education. 

From tree-branch tepees to bush tucker gardens, mud kitchens and even functional fire pits, primary schools are providing all sorts of nature play environments in an effort to better connect primary students with the outdoors.

But while nature play infrastructure grows, new research from the University of South Australia shows that teachers also need a knowledge-boost on how to best link nature play areas to the curriculum and children’s learning.

The study found that while all teachers believe that nature-based play and learning can deliver huge benefits for children, seven out of 10 teachers felt that their knowledge and confidence was limiting their ability to fully embrace these opportunities at school.

Surveying teachers in 50 South Australian schools, the study found that the benefits of nature-based play and learning for children included:

  • better mental health (98 per cent)

  • improved cognitive development (96 per cent)

  • learning about risk-taking (96 per cent)

  • spending time outdoors/in nature (96 per cent)

Barriers to adopting nature-based play and learning for teachers included:

  • limited knowledge and confidence about how to incorporate into learning or how to operate the class outside (68 per cent)

  • a crowded curriculum restricted their ability to adopt new learning (64 per cent)

  • a lack of understanding/support from others in the school (38 per cent)

Australian statistics indicate that less than a quarter of children aged 5 to 14 achieve the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity every day and spend just over two hours each day sitting or lying down for screen-based activities.

Lead researcher and PhD candidate, Nicole Miller, says the importance of nature-based play and learning for children cannot be underestimated. 

She advocates for schools to support professional development opportunities to develop nature-based teaching and learning skills.

“There is widespread concern that children are not spending enough time in nature and, as a result, that they may be missing out on the potential benefits that nature has to offer – both for wellbeing and learning,” Ms Miller says.

“Emerging evidence indicates that nature-based play and learning can improve children’s social skills, learning, physical health, and wellbeing.

‘While lots of schools are creating wonderful nature play areas, many teachers feel underprepared and uncertain about how to use these spaces to maximise teaching and learning opportunities aligned with the curriculum.

“For teachers in the know, nature-based play and learning is incredible. For example, cooking damper on an outdoor fire can encompass a range of curriculum skills – maths and measurement of ingredients, essential fire and safety skills, literacy, and sequencing skills from the recipe, as well as resourcefulness in finding the best sticks to use as skewers.

“But simple activities can equally deliver benefits: using sticks to demonstrate how fractions are part of a whole can demonstrate problem solving in a hands-on way and help children better grasp more complex maths concepts.

“Nature-based play and learning has so much potential for learning and wellbeing – both for students and teachers. But we must find ways to support teachers to upskill and feel confident in delivering learning opportunities in nature.

“Training, education, and support at the school level is essential for teachers to take the next step, but so too are system-level approaches to consider how nature-based learning can be formally included into the curriculum.

“Mitigating these barriers must be a focus to ensure children are able to access nature-based play and learning opportunities at school.”