Nature Play is Important for the Cognitive Development of Early Learners

February 16th, 2017

Spending time in nature is essential for cognitive development. Nature play stimulates creativity and problem solving skills integral to executive function development. Children who play and spend time in nature have increased concentration and cognitive skills, including mitigation of ADHD/ADD symptoms.

Findings from Research & Evaluation

Spontaneous, open-ended, play in natural surroundings offer unrivaled opportunities for early learners to classify, observe, explore, and interpret the phenomena around them. (Kellert, 2005) Opportunities for creative use of loose parts and child-led investigation set the ground work for cognitive processes and support scientific and aesthetic thinking. (Ernst, 2008) Through play in the varied and less structured venues of outdoor spaces, children encounter diverse opportunities for decision making that stimulate problem solving and creativity. These types of activities promote executive functioning, required for lifelong success, and may lead to increased future academic performance, concentration, and other markers of cognitive functioning.  (Burdette & Whitaker, 2005, Charles, 2009, Charles, 2016, Strife & Downey, 2009) Direct experiences with nature, as opposed to indirect and vicarious ones, more commonly and fully provide the spontaneous and unplanned immersion, challenges, and inspirations necessary for maturation and development in children. (Kellert, 2005).   

Some aspects of the natural world are consistent, but often the environment is revealed and experienced in unpredictable ways- it is ever-changing across time and space, constantly requiring adaptation and challenging ideas and intuitions and giving opportunities for creative exploration. Children relate well to nature and natural objects due to the context in their lives, its consistency, and its similarities to them (particularly animals). One example is recognition and interpretation of the dynamic nature of animals, including the similarity of their reactions to stimuli such that children can recognize and attribute thoughts and feelings to the animal. This is particularly important as it elicits basic affective responses and attachment in children which aid their abilities to receive and respond to information and ideas and are motivating forces for cognitive and learning development. (Kellert, 2005)

In children with ADHD, access to and time spent in greenspaces and open spaces, even just taking a walk, has been shown over a number of studies by Faber Taylor and Kuo (2011) to mitigate symptoms of attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorders and increase concentration. In fact, the research has shown the greener their everyday experiences, the more manageable are their symptoms. Other research, reviewed by Chawla (2015), has shown that more access, proximity to, and time spent in outdoor and green spaces is positively associated with higher concentration, greater self-control, and increased memory and academic success. Mårtensson, et al. (2009) looked through the restorative lens in regards to the potential attention benefits of outdoor time in preschool children and found that preschool children who spent more time outdoors in “green, spacious, and well-integrated” outdoor areas ultimately had higher attention and ability to focus.   

For the earliest learners, experiences in and with nature are guided by parents and guardians and help build values concerned with safety and sustenance in relation to direct and indirect experiences with nature. Very young children learn to identify, count, and appropriately interact with objects in nature. Sciencing programs (guided play led by adults) can lead to more independent, active, and spontaneous exploratory play than is found in unguided groups of young children. (Van Schijndel et al., 2010) This can boost the potential for long-term nature play investigation and cognitive development.  


Burdette, H.L., & Whitaker, R.C. (2005). Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children: Looking Beyond Fitness and Fatness to Attention, Affiliation, and Affect. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 159(1), 46-50.  Burdette and Whitaker, Resurrecting Free Play in Young Children

Charles, C. (2016, September 13). How Nature Play and Learning Support Children’s Success. [Association of Zoos and Aquariums Webinar]. In Nature Play series.   

Charles, C. The Ecology of Hope: Natural Guides to Building a Children and Nature Movement. Journal of Science Education and Technology, 18(6), 467-475. Charles- Ecology of Hope

Chawla, L. (2015). Benefits of Nature Contact for Children. Journal of Planning Literature, 30(4), 433-452 Chawla- Benefits of Nature Contact for Children   

Ernst, J.A. (2008). Early Childhood Nature Play: A Needs Assessment of Minnesota Licensed Childcare Providers.  Journal of Interpretation Research, 17(1), 7-24  Ernst- Early Childhood Nature Play Needs Assessment

Faber Taylor, A., & Kuo, F.E. (2011). Could Exposure to Everyday Green Spaces Help Treat ADHD? Evidence from Children’s Play Settings. Applied Psychology: Health and Well-Being, 3(3), 281-303.  Faber Taylor & Kuo- ADHD Treatment through Exposure to Green Spaces

Kellert, S.R. (2005). Chapter 3: Nature and Childhood Development. In Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection (pp. 63-89). Island Press: Washington, D.C.  Kellert- Building for Life Chapter 3

Mårtensson, F., Boldemann, C., Söderström, M., Blennow, M., Englund, J.E., & Grahn, P. (2009). Outdoor environmental assessment of attention promoting settings for preschool children. Health & Place, 15(4), 1149-1157.​​​ Martensson, et al. – Outdoor assesssment in preschool children

Strife, S., & Downey, L. (2009). Childhood Development and Access to Nature: A New Direction for Environmental Inequality Research. Organ Environment, 22(1), 99-122. Strife & Downey- Childhood Development and Access to Nature

Van Schijndel, T.J.P., Singer, E., van der Maas, H.L.J., & Raijmakers, M.E.J. (2010) A sciencing programme and young children’s exploratory play in the sandpit. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 7(5), 603-617. van Schijndel, et al. – A sciencing programme and young children’s exploratory play in the sandpit


*Not all of the references are specific to early learners, though most speak to this group