The Research Files Episode 81: How schools are using nature-based play and learning spaces

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Hello and thanks for listening to this episode of The Research Files by Teacher magazine – I’m Jo Earp. Having access to outdoor spaces at school is great for play at break and lunchtimes, but it also opens up a whole host of curriculum-linked learning possibilities that extend beyond PE lessons. A new study by researchers at the University of South Australia has found that primary schools may not be making the most of the outdoor areas they have when it comes to curriculum delivery. The study acknowledges that schools and teachers are juggling multiple priorities, with possible barriers including a crowded curriculum and a lack of teacher training or confidence in this area. Dr Nicole Miller, Online Course Facilitator at UniSA Online, joins me in today’s episode to discuss the research findings, which have just been published in the journal Children, Youth and Environments. We also chat about the different types of outdoor play and learning spaces, and the benefits for students and teachers. So, let’s get started.

Jo Earp: Now, your research looked at the availability of outdoor spaces – so, that’s nature play and learning – in South Australian primary schools and how those spaces are being used. Before we talk about the findings then, what exactly do you mean by a ‘nature play space’?

Nicole Miller: So, there's 2 types of spaces within the ‘nature play space’ umbrella. The first one is a purpose-built nature play space – so that's a play space which is designed specifically for engaging students in nature-based play and learning. So, those might be the ones that you've seen, beautiful spaces with climbing structures, logs, perhaps beautiful carvings in the logs. So, really purposefully designed spaces, which are becoming quite trendy at the moment. The other type of nature play space is just your traditional natural outdoor space at school. So that might be places with rocks, a creek bed or areas with trees and grass.

JE: So, there might be some schools that have access to wooded areas in the grounds, or there might be some with, like you say, rocks and things like that. And then there's the purpose-built ones. Your study was just in one Australian state as well, that was South Australia, but this is a popular thing around the world (you mentioned it's trendy now isn't it) and it has been for some time, hasn't it?

NM: Yes, I think from my understanding of what I found through my research is that Richard Louv’s book The Last Child in the Woods, which came out in 2005, I think that was a real spark (perhaps the conversations were already happening) but I think that was a real spark of this movement that we're seeing towards encouraging children to get back outside and spend more time outside and really focusing on the benefits of that.

And I do know that there is, this is something that is really popular and has been popular for a long time in Denmark and other Scandinavian countries where they have Outdoor School, which I think is, you know, a lot more intense than what we might see some Australian schools doing in their purpose-built nature play space or natural outdoor space in their schools. I think that Outdoor School is more about spending the whole day outside. There's also Forest Schools in the UK and some Bush Kindies or Beach Kindies here in places in Australia as well.

JE: So, it can go, can't it, from, you know, an hour a day or an hour a week to like you say, those that are outside all the time. So why should school educators be interested in this area of practice then, what does the research say about the benefits of nature-based play and learning?

NM: Yeah, so there is a growing body of research for a really wide range of benefits. So, for just generally being outside, there can be benefits like increased opportunities for physical activity, getting more vitamin D, helping to prevent myopia (which is near-sightedness) and also there's some research around attention restoration, which is, when you spend time outside there is a theory that it can restore your attention and your mental energy for the next things that you will do in your day. So, that can be useful, really for all of us to spend a bit of time outside and then come back restored.

In terms of nature-based learning, so learning using nature or natural items, there are benefits again around physical activity, forming a connection to nature – which personally is what I think is really so important, especially as we're becoming more disconnected from nature in our daily lives – engagement in learning, and also social engagement as well, so, opportunities for social interaction. So there's, yeah, you can see lots of different potential benefits there.

JE: Uh-huh, and for teachers of course it's a resource that's just there, isn't it? It just appears for you, so you don't have to pull all these resources together and put them on tables and so on and so forth. So, that's another benefit, isn't it?

NM: Yes. Mentioning teachers that reminded me that also in some interviews that I did, some teachers who used nature-based learning and play regularly, they say that they also enjoyed it themselves. So, they found it enjoyable to get out of the classroom, mix things up a little bit and try something different in their day.

JE: Oh, that's a really interesting point, because I don't think I've ever really thought about that. When we talk about nature play and learning, we tend to think about students, don't we? And yeah, you're absolutely right it must be good for the teachers as well.

NM: Yes, certainly. And, of course, they can get some of those benefits like vitamin D and perhaps the attention restoration, but maybe they'll be focusing too much on keeping all the students on task to get those benefits, I'm not sure.

JE: Yeah, that’s a whole different piece of research, isn't it! So, okay then, let's move on to this particular piece of research that you've done. It involves yourself and your colleagues at the University of South Australia – that's Saravana Kumar, Karma Pearce and Katherine Baldock. What was the aim of the study and who did it involve? I mentioned it was primary schools, wasn't it?

NM: Yes, it was primary schools. So, it involved South Australian public primary schools and we had 52 of them participate. So, it was on online survey, which was focusing on gathering information about the purpose-built nature play spaces and natural outdoor spaces that were available in South Australian public primary schools, and how those spaces were used within the school day.

And the reason that we wanted to look at this was because of the popularity that we've seen, I guess anecdotally. There is very little known about the distribution and use of nature play spaces in schools, so this is something we really wanted to understand.

JE: Okay. So, first of all then, what did you find in relation to the availability of these spaces? And it's important to point out that there were different kinds of spaces, weren't.

NM: Yes, so for the natural outdoor space – so, again, that's just our regular outdoor spaces, trees and rocks and grass – 87% of the schools who were surveyed said that they had a natural outdoor space. In terms of purpose-built spaces, 63% of schools said that they had a purpose-built nature play space, and then a further 25% said that they were planning or building a purpose-built space. So that was quite amazing to see such a large number of schools with those spaces, or soon to have those spaces.

And then, interestingly, we found that the schools who said they didn't have a natural outdoor space, so 87% had a natural outdoor space, those that didn't had all reported that they were planning or constructing a purpose-built nature play space, which is great to see. Then, hopefully all of the schools that we surveyed did have or were soon to have a space where they could engage their students with nature-based play and learning.

JE: That's great. You read my mind! I was about to say the poor schools, the 13% of schools that didn't have an outdoor space, I wonder what they were having to make do with. But that's good to hear that they were all planning it or in the process of constructing that. I guess that’s down to school funding as well. And, again, I just want to talk about the wider research here – are there particular benefits to … we've mentioned purpose-built and something like a school playground or something that exists just naturally, what you would call an outdoor space?

NM: Yeah, so there is a little bit of research in this space. There's some researchers which have talked about how a purpose built space, because, of course, by nature it is purpose-built it is able to cater for lots of different needs that children have, like, for example, gross motor skills and also fine motor skills and sensory experiences. So, they can all sort of be inserted into the space purposefully, so they can provide that. Also, purpose-built nature play spaces can afford a variety of rich play opportunities for children. So, lots of different, like I said before, gross motor opportunities in terms of play, but also opportunities for pretend play.

There's been a little bit of research comparing between traditional playgrounds and natural playgrounds. One study found that there was increased time spent in play episodes in a natural style playground, so a purpose-built playground, and another study found that the purpose-built nature playground was better at promoting physical activity than a traditional playground. However, that's just a very small handful of studies that we have at the moment, so much more research is needed to understand this.

JE: It’s interesting as well, isn’t it, to think about how students use them and how they explore them, and what kind of guidance they get as well, because obviously the teachers play a role in that, don't they – is there much research in that area, in terms of how they're being used in terms, not so much as how the students are maybe exploring them, but uh, you know … is it curriculum delivery? Are they just playing? I understand there's not really much research out there at the moment.

NM: No, unfortunately not. To our knowledge, in the literature review we did before conducting this research we only found one study in Denmark which was looking at the dissemination and use of outdoor school, and we didn't really find any other studies that were looking at the distribution and use of purpose-built and natural outdoor spaces in schools.

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JE: What did you find on that question of how the spaces were being used in the schools that you spoke to?

NM: Yes, so, in terms of the purpose-built spaces and the natural outdoor spaces they were actually used quite similarly. So, they were both used for play during break times – so, at recess and lunch – class activities. So, we differentiated between curriculum delivery and class activities. Curriculum delivery was specifically delivering curriculum, whereas class activities might be something like just spending some time reading or playing some class games, things like that. So, it was important to differentiate between those 2 so we could actually see what type of learning was taking place in each space.

So, purpose-built and natural outdoor spaces were both used for play during break times, class activities and play before and after school. But the least common use for both types of spaces was actually curriculum delivery, and the very least was curriculum delivery about nature. So we were also interested in differentiating between curriculum delivery and curriculum delivery about nature. So, curriculum delivery was the activity that was done least in both types of outdoor spaces.

JE: That's kind of counterintuitive, isn't it? Curriculum delivery about nature, I was just looking at the results here, the table, that the natural outdoor space (so that’s your rocks, or your little bit of woodland or whatever, or your trail you’ve got access to), so, as a setting for curriculum delivery about nature, there's only 49, just below half of those surveyed, 49%. That's kind of a bit counterintuitive. But, on the other hand, I'm just looking the purpose-built nature play space as a setting for curriculum delivery – actually that was 70%, so still lower than the other things … play before and after school, class activities (that was 76) and play during break times was 94, but it's good to see that setting for curriculum delivery there. Maybe that's because it's purpose built, I'm not sure. Did you actually ask them about that kind of thing, about why?

NM: No, unfortunately, we didn't ask them about why, but it would be fascinating to know and understand. And I think you might be onto something there with the point that it is purpose built and also often schools will have invested a lot of time and potentially money and energy into a purpose-built nature place space. So, I imagine that they will invest more time in using it as well.

JE: As we've mentioned, there’s hardly any research even into how they're being used, let alone the ‘why?’. So, this is kind of like the first step, isn't it, your kind of research? So, alongside the uses for them, how often were they actually using them? Was it like once or twice a week … you asked them about, again, the purpose-built ones and then the natural outdoor spaces didn't you?

NM: Yes. So, we found that purpose-built nature play spaces and natural outdoor spaces were both most commonly used for class activities in multiple lessons per week. So, most commonly used multiple times a week, which is good. However, we found that purpose-built nature play spaces were used more frequently when compared to natural outdoor spaces, which is what I think we were just talking a little bit about there. Perhaps that's because those spaces are purpose-built and have been invested in by the school and potentially the teachers as well.

JE: So, from the findings then, and I was I was looking again (and I'll put a link into the report with the tables and the figures in and so on, and then listeners can go and have a look at the actual stats) from the findings it's clear that space is being valued by schools and that they want to have them there. We've spoken about there’s very few that didn't have access to a space; they've all got access or they are planning them, or they're actually in construction. But it suggests they're not necessarily making the best use of them. So, really looking at how to integrate them, not just as a play space, but as a learning opportunity that's really embedded into that curriculum delivery.

NM: Absolutely. I think that that's extremely important, especially we've talked a bit about the investment, but especially given that schools have potentially invested a lot of time and money into these spaces in their school yards, it's really important I think that they take full advantage of them. And, also, given the potential benefits for students in terms of learning, like engagement, it's important that they are taking advantage of those benefits in their nature place spaces at school.

JE: And there could be a lot of reasons for that and we've kind of touched on, you know, that's another piece of research altogether, isn't it, barriers and things that encourage use. I guess you know for teachers and leaders listening to this podcast, they could have a think about what they've got access to and maybe reflect on how they’re using them. Do we have any further insight from any other existing research about, you know, why schools are using them in such a way or some of those potential barriers?

NM: Yeah, there actually is some more research around barriers than the other things that we've been talking about today. And some of our own research looked at the barriers for South Australian primary schools (Miller et al, 2022). I think it's interesting to think about how the play spaces were used for play during break times and play before and after school, more than they were used for learning activities. And I think that, that, to me, it speaks to how easy that is to incorporate into the school day. So, it's easy to use those play spaces at play times, but it's harder to use those spaces and incorporate them into the school day and the things that we're already doing in the school day.

And that really speaks to some of the barriers that were uncovered in this survey that we did. So, we did a survey with South Australian public primary school staff, and we found that the biggest barrier to engaging students in nature-based play and learning was limited knowledge and confidence, which was 68% of respondents. Which makes sense because this [is] something that … teachers might not be trained to do; it might not be something that they've spent much time doing before. There's also the second largest barrier, which was 64% of respondents said that a crowded curriculum was a barrier – so having the time to fit it into the school day. And also, a lack of understanding and support from others in the school was another barrier – and this was less people reported this, 38% of respondents reported this one.

So, we can kind of see how some of these barriers might be limiting the amount of time that teachers feel they can spend outdoors in the purpose-built and natural outdoor spaces, particularly when it comes to curriculum learning. Because, as the results show here, the crowded curriculum is a real pressure and teachers are feeling like they can't fit it into the school day and perhaps they don't have the knowledge and confidence to incorporate nature-based play and learning into what they're doing in the curriculum already.

JE: Yeah, we hear that a lot and we discuss that a lot in the articles that we've run on things like school improvement programs, and, you know, resources, different educational resources and so on – that you can spend money on new resources and programs, but it's about the implementation as to whether they're going to be successful and sustainable. And that's often around, you know, can you make time for it? Is their support there within the school? And crucially, as you've mentioned, that PD, a support that's there. So, instead of ‘plonk, here's a new purpose-built area’, ‘here's a new purpose-built area and we’re going to take you through … we’re going to model how you can use it, or best embed it into your planning’ and so on. So, that's really interesting. So, just briefly before we finish then, what are the limitations of this particular study? And then I'm interested what the next steps might be for your own research or maybe what other researchers should be looking to explore in this area.

NM: Yes, so, as with all research, there were some limitations to this study. One key one that perhaps you might have been thinking of while we've been talking is the potential response bias. So, participants who might not have a nature play space or be interested in nature play and outdoor learning might not feel motivated to participate in the survey. Of course, we tried to minimise this by the information we provided on the recruitment material, inviting those types of people to participate, but of course perhaps they might not be interested.

The other one was the response rate. So, of course we always want to get a higher response rate and hear from more people to strengthen our results. So, we did have a lowish response rate, and to minimise this we did keep the survey open for quite a long time. We opened it for 4 months to try and maximize the amount of responses we could get. And another limitation was that the study didn't investigate the reasons why purpose-built and natural outdoor spaces are used or not used. So that would be really interesting as a next step to understand the reasons why.

And I think, as we touched on just before, in terms of our further research, it will be really important to understand how we can mitigate these barriers that we're talking about that are limiting the use of nature-based play and learning at school, especially in the case of the limited use of curriculum learning. So, I think things like training can be helpful for that and also I learned about, in my interviews that I did with some school staff during my PhD research I learned that an important factor for enabling nature-based play and learning in school can be a champion. So, someone at the school – could be a parent, a teacher, someone who's really passionate about nature-based play and learning – and they’re able to encourage others to participate in it and encourage events like outdoor classroom day at school. So, they can be really important in helping to break down some of those barriers.

JE: Well, it sounds like you've got quite a bit of research that you can put in your schedule for the coming years! And, as I say, hopefully this conversation today has helped listeners have a think about their own situation and their own place spaces, and hopefully they'll maybe go away and reflect on how that's been used and the support available. But it's been great speaking to you today – Dr Nicole Miller, thank you so much for sharing your expertise with The Research Files.

NM: Thank you so much, Jo, it's been a pleasure.

That’s all for today. A reminder that if you want to access the 2 South Australian studies mentioned by Dr Nicole Miller in this episode, I’ll put the links in the transcript over on – just head to the podcasts tab or you search for The Research Files Episode 81. If you want to keep listening, you can access more than 250 Teacher podcast episodes from our archive, wherever you get your podcasts from. And if you’re interested in more on nature play, you may want to check out my 2021 chat with Professor Amy Cutter-Mackenzie-Knowles (that’s Research Files Episode 71), and the Teaching Methods episode I did on Nature Pedagogy with Claire Warden from 2016.

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Miller, N., Kumar, S., Pearce, K. L., & Baldock, K. L. (2022). The perceived benefits of and barriers to nature-based play and learning in South Australian public primary schools: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Adventure Education and Outdoor Learning, 22(4), 342-354.

Miller, N. C., Kumar, S., Pearce, K. L., & Baldock, K. L. (2023). Characterizing the Available Outdoor Spaces and Their Use in South Australian Public Primary Schools. Children, Youth and Environments, 33(1), 122-143. DOI:10.1353/cye.2023.0003

Consider the purpose-built or natural outdoor play spaces your students have access to at school and reflect on the following questions, on your own, or with colleagues:

  • How often do you use the spaces, and what are they used for?
  • Do you think you’re making the most of these natural play resources?
  • How could you embed this educational resource into your curriculum delivery?
  • What support would you need to make this successful?