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Children’s Developmental Needs: A Review of Connection to Nature

Key Message

Play and experience in the nature contributes to children’s cognitive, physical and social development, restores positive emotion, develops sense of place, empathy and care for nature, and associates positively with environmental attitude and behaviour.


Mustapa, Nor Diyana, Maliki, Nor Zarifah, and Hamzah, Aswati. (2015). Repositioning Children’s Developmental Needs in Space Planning: A review of connection to nature. Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences. 170: 330-339. doi:10.1016/j.sbspro.2015.01.043


The past few decades have shown that the opportunity for children to have a direct connection with nature and outdoor environment declined due to rapid urbanization. Children are facing various physical and health problems as consequences from this phenomenon. This paper presents a review on benefits of nature on children’s developmental needs. The review also highlights children’s experiences in nature and effects of disconnection from the nature. In summary, it is crucial to understand children’s view towards nature and environment in creating spaces that reconnect them with nature. Designing for children today is indeed designing for the future, as well.


Cognitive development
Previous studies have demonstrated that direct and indirect experience with nature increase and improve children’s cognitive level which includes concentration, attention abilities, performances and thinking skills. Playing in the natural environments that offer various affordances stimulate their sense and further improve and develop their cognitive skill.
Attention abilities of children in pre-school improve after staying and playing in green outdoor environments with a  greater amount of vegetation, shrub and terrain compared to other settings with less amount of green (Mårtensson et al., 2009). Children cognitive beliefs also increase through direct experience in nature in a summer camp which further influence their environmental attitude and behaviour (Collado et al., 2013).
Studies also demonstrated that even views towards nature positively affect children’s cognitive level. Girls living in an apartment with a view towards nature through window reportedly having greater concentration abilities (Taylor et al., 2002). Another study with undergraduate students has also shown the same result. Students in dormitory with natural view through window have greater attention abilities than those with no natural view (Tennessen & Cimprich, 1995).
Studies on the nature and children with Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) and Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) also present similar outcomes. Symptoms of children with ADD reduce after they have participated in activities in green areas (Taylor et al., 2001). Children with ADHD have a greater concentration, complete tasks and follow instructions after playing in green areas compared to playing indoors with games and playing basketball in court (Kuo & Taylor, 2004). Recent study by Taylor & Kuo (2009) found that children with ADD have better concentration after a walk in the natural environment than a walk in the downtown or neighbourhood.

Physical development
Physical development in children develops from direct experience in nature through play and exploration. Children are found to be physically active when playing outdoors compared to playing indoors.
Various affordances in natural elements give them opportunities to explore through physical activity and further develop their motor fitness (Fjortoft & Sageie, 2000; Fjortoft, 2001). Children’s versatile play through exploration improves their motor fitness in balance and coordination abilities (Fjortoft, 2001). Natural environment such as forest woodland area offer children with a variety of affordances to explore and play through physical activities and further develop motor abilities (Fjortoft & Sageie, 2000; Fjortoft, 2001, 2004; Said, 2012).
In a comparison study on children’s physical fitness of five to seven years old children, between children playing in the forest (natural area) and children playing in conventional playground, it demonstrates that motor fitness in children playing in the forest increase significantly compared to children playing in conventional playground (Fjortoft, 2004). Recent study also found that being physically active outdoor with greenery can inhibit child obesity (Bell, Wilson, & Liu, 2008).

Social development
Playing develops children’s social skills by enhancing their language and communication skills through interaction with their peers. Natural environments offer diverse, imaginative and creative play that stimulate and develop social interaction, independent social skills and environmental socialization between children (Bixler et al., 2002; Prezza et al., 2001).
Imaginative play enriches children’s social interaction and builds friendship. Children perceive a variety of natural elements in forest and orchard as their social activities places (Said, 2012). Children communicate with peers and develop friendship when playing in the natural environment (Laaksoharju, Rappe, & Kaivola, 2012; Said, 2012). They learn social skills such as manner to behave and interact with peers, confidence and work ethics (Laaksoharju et al., 2012). Engagement with natural elements in a sensory garden also helps children to develop social skills by explaining the experience with the plants and herbs (Hussein, 2012).
Increase in the number of trees on school grounds provide opportunity for children to socialize and interact with their friends. Greater amount of vegetation increases the outdoor recess time, provide a welcoming environment and encourage children to play outside (Arbogast et al., 2009). In neighbourhood context, nearby nature such as green park encourages children’s independent mobility and freedom of movement to play outdoor. Independent mobility increases their chances to develop social skills and strengthens peer interactions (Prezza et al., 2001).

Emotional development
Nature functions as a buffer for children’s stress. Children who live close to nature have lower stress level (Wells & Evans, 2003). Another study on a comparison between children in four primary schools ranging from very natural school to non natural school shows that children in very natural school has lower stress level. They are able to manage stress compared to children, who are in non-natural school (Corraliza et al., 2012).
Research on comparison between forest school and conventional school also found the positive effects of nature on children. The restoration effect in nature can positively reflect on children’s goals and the amount of restoration can vary depending on behaviour state. Children with poor behaviour benefit the most from activities in natural settings. The study suggests that experience in nature reduces anger and develops positive mood, as well. Direct experience in wild nature associates positively with environmental attitude and behaviour while indirect nature activities such as gardening is slightly associated with environmental behaviour (Wells & Lekies, 2006).ell as, improves behaviour (Roe & Aspinall, 2011).
Studies with people from various range of age on their childhood experiences identified that gardens function as a restorative environment and escape from anxieties and stress in everyday life. The garden creates opportunities for physical engagement with natural elements and creates excitement (Gross & Lane, 2007).

Spiritual development
Direct experiences in nature encourage connection and increase children’s affinity towards nature. Children, who participated in a nature camp with and without environmental education showed an increase in their affinity towards nature, ecological beliefs and environmental behaviour (Collado et al., 2013). Experience in nature increases their score on eco-affinity, eco-awareness and environmental knowledge (Larson, Green, & Castleberry, 2009). Moreover, time spent in nature is found to be an indicator on environmental attitudes. Experience in the nature in a longer time has been found to be an indicator on positive environmental attitude resulted from the connection and feeling empathy to it (Stern, Powell, & Ardoin, 2008).
Connection to nature during childhood has a significant impact on attitude and behaviour towards nature in later life. In retrospective studies, frequent experiences in nature during childhood influence adult environmental career choices and environmental concern (Chawla, 2007; Wells & Lekies, 2006). Direct experience in wild nature associates positively with environmental attitude and behaviour while indirect nature activities such as gardening is slightly associated with environmental behaviour (Wells & Lekies, 2006).

Benefit Statements / Outcomes

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  • Canadian Parks and Recreation Association (CPRAA)

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