Parent and early childhood educator perspectives of unstructured nature play for young children: A qualitative descriptive study


Nature play is growing in popularity, with many early childhood settings transforming their outdoor play environments to incorporate more natural elements. Current research highlights the benefits of engaging in unstructured nature play for children’s health and development; yet little is known about the experiences of key nature play end-users such as parents and early childhood educators, even though they directly impact the application of nature play within early childhood settings. This study aimed to address this knowledge gap by exploring parent and early childhood educator (ECE) perspectives to gain an understanding about their experiences with nature play. Using a qualitative descriptive approach, semi-structured in-person and telephone interviews were conducted with 18 ECE and 13 parents across four early childhood centres (from various socio-economic regions) across metropolitan Adelaide, South Australia during 2019–2020. Interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed verbatim. Thematic analysis identified five main themes; positive affirmations of nature play, factors influencing nature play engagement, defining nature play, outdoor play space design and risky play. Children’s connection to the natural world, learning about sustainability, emotional regulation, and children discovering their own capabilities were perceived advantages of engaging in nature play. Despite the benefits, ECE’s described institutional barriers such as resourcing, adhering to policies and scheduling conflicts, whereas, parents described time, getting dirty and proximity to nature play spaces as barriers to nature play engagement. Parents and ECEs alike described adults as gatekeepers for play, especially when other daily tasks compete for their time, or when faced with weather-imposed barriers (cold, rain, extreme heat in summer). The findings suggest that parents and ECEs may need additional resources and guidance on how to engage with nature play and how to overcome barriers within early childhood settings and the home environment.

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Kylie A. Dankiw, Saravana Kumar, Katherine L. Baldock, Margarita D. Tsiros 

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