Are Good Problem-solvers

Did you know a simple game of hide-and-go-seek can help develop problem-solving skills? Playing a game like this in the outdoors allows children to make observations, look for patterns and listen to discover where their friends and family might be hiding. Nature presents challenges for children; letting kids use their own ideas to solve them. Such challenges can also inspire cooperation — kids may try solving those problems with other kids before engaging their parents, teachers or play leaders.

Time spent outdoors supports many aspects of children’s health.

The affordances of natural play spaces can support the development of executive function skills in preschool children

Four scholars in the fields of educational psychology, early childhood education, and developmental and learning sciences investigated how the structure of a playscape and the affordances within impacted the interactions and actions of children’s play, particularly as they addressed expression of executive function (EF) skills. Playscapes are intentionally designed to provide vegetation-rich play environments that promote young children’s active engagement with and affinity for nature. Affordances are action possibilities which, in a playspace, encourage children to take risks, explore and investigate while engaging in various forms of active play. EF generally refers to goal-directed behavior and self-regulatory skills. The specific aim of this study was to investigate how the affordances of two different playscapes could provide opportunities for strengthening children’s EF skills.

Sixty-five children (age 3-5) from two different and diverse programs participated in this study — one an urban university laboratory preschool which serves children funded through Head Start or tuition fees; the other a non-profit program serving low-income children and families at different sites across suburban and rural settings. Data was based on videotaped vignettes of children at play in two different playscapes.

The vignettes provided examples of children setting their own goals, solving problems, focusing attention, and demonstrating cognitive flexibility. There were also examples of children showing inhibitory control, initiation, flexibility, working memory, planning and organization, and monitoring. The affordances within the playscape (such as logs and tree cookies) promoted the exercise of EF skills.

  • Carr, Victoria, Rhonda Douglas Brown, Sue Schlembach, and Leslie Kochanowski. 2017. “Nature by Design: Playscape Affordances Support the Use of Executive Function in Preschoolers.” Children, Youth and Environments 27 (2): 25–46.

Nature playscapes encourage creativity, problem-solving and self-determination

The major purpose of this study was to examine how child-directed play within a deliberately designed natural playscape fosters the development of self-determination and its associated attributes within young children. The study observed 65 pre-school children ranging in ages from three to five years from two separate Head-start and tuition-based programs near Cincinnati, Ohio.

The authors employed a qualitative, grounded theory approach to data analysis informed by the Foundations for Self-Determination Model (Palmer et al. 2012). Part of a larger study that included curriculum assessment, behavior mapping and teacher focus groups along with audio/visual observation and analysis, this particular study employed only the data collected from the collection and analysis of the observational videos. Each school participated in three one-hour play sessions for a total of six hours of observation.

While this article focuses primarily on the role a naturalized playscape takes in the development of a child’s self-determination, the concept of self-determination is associated with other important developmental outcomes including a child’s sense of confidence and positive self-esteem. The authors elaborate on this point as they conclude that intentionally-designed nature play grounds “encourage choice-making, problem-solving, self-regulation and engagement” (p.163).

  • Kochanowski, Leslie, and Victoria Carr. 2014. “Nature Playscapes as Contexts for Fostering Self-Determination.” Children, Youth and Environments 24 (2): 146–67. https://doi.org/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.24.2.0146.

National Wildlife Federation Survey

While playing and learning outside may be more difficult to fit in a busy schedule, teachers need to think twice about saying, “Stop staring out the window and pay attention.” According to a March, 2010 survey by NWF of nearly 2,000 educators, 78 percent feel students who spend regular time in unstructured outdoor play are better able to concentrate, and 75 percent feel students who spend regular time outdoors are more creative and better problem solvers. Studies confirm access to nature in an educational setting has a positive impact on student focus and learning by improving attentiveness, test scores and performance.

Direct Experience in Nature Is Critical and Diminishing

Nature is important to children’s development in every major way-intellectually, emotionally, socially, spiritually, and physically. In his newest book, Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection (Island Press, 2005), Dr. Stephen R. Kellert of Yale University devotes a chapter to the subject of "Nature and Childhood Development." Combining his original research with well-documented references to the research of others, this chapter is a powerful synthesis of what we know, and what we do not know, about the importance of nature to children’s healthy development. Kellert states, "Play in nature, particularly during the critical period of middle childhood, appears to be an especially important time for developing the capacities for creativity, problem-solving, and emotional and intellectual development." He includes research to indicate optimal learning opportunities at age-appropriate times and differentiates between indirect, vicarious, and direct experiences with nature — with the latter less and less available to children. He urges designers, developers, educators, political leaders and citizens throughout society to make changes in our modern built environments to provide children with positive contact with nature-where children live, play, and learn. (Original Research and Synthesis)

  • Kellert, Stephen R. "Nature and Childhood Development." In Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection. Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005.