Research Summary

Can playscapes promote early childhood inquiry towards environmentally responsible behaviors? An exploratory study

Using Playscapes to Connect Young Children to Nature

Environmental Education Research

With electronic devices more pervasive than ever in the world of children and adults alike, many parents, classroom educators, and environmental educators fear that children do not spend enough time away from screens and exploring natural spaces. This diminished connection with the natural world may cause cascading impacts on childhood development, impeding opportunities to connect with nature as a whole. Playscapes, or enclosed play spaces that incorporate natural elements, seek to fill this void, at least partially. Little is known, however, about whether and how playscapes might foster exploration of natural systems, support inquiry-based learning, and/or establish the foundations of environmentally responsible behavior. This study compares preschoolers’ interactions with a playscape and their activities at a regular playground.

The researchers observed 64 preschoolers, aged three to five, who attended a laboratory preschool at a Midwestern university. Half of the preschoolers were allowed to play freely on their school playground, a small and familiar area adjacent to busy roads. The other half of the preschoolers were allowed to play freely at a large and complex playscape at the Cincinnati Nature Center. The playscape featured caves, paths, forests, streams, sand pits, and other natural elements. Researchers videotaped the children during three separate play sessions at each of the two locations.

The researchers collected 50 minutes of usable video footage from the Nature Center playscape and 25 minutes of usable footage from the school playground. The researchers then split the footage into short clips and coded each video clip according to: (1) the type of science inquiry observed, (2) the type of play observed, and (3) the specific location within the playscape or playground where the action happened. Following in the footsteps of past researchers, this study used four types of increasingly complex science inquiry: observation, exploration, representing and recording, and language. The researchers also coded for four types of play: functional play (using senses to learn about materials); constructive play (such as building up or breaking down objects); dramatic play (through imaginative role-play); and games (involving set rules).

At the playscape, researchers saw children playing in the water and in the woods—environments not available at most regular playgrounds. Children at the playscape mostly engaged in functional play, such as splashing and running (62%). Constructive play, such as building forts (26%), and dramatic play, such as acting out “The Lion King” (12%), occurred less frequently. Comparatively, children at the playground showed mainly constructive play (55%) and functional play (42%), with only a few instances of dramatic play (2%). The researchers attributed the dominance of constructive play at the playground to a single teacher-led activity during one of the play sessions; omitting this activity, functional play was dominant in both the playscape and the playground, with the higher rate of dramatic play at the playscape being the only major difference between locations. Researchers did not observe games at either location.

In both playscape and playground interactions, children engaged in science inquiry mostly through observations (35% and 40%, respectively) and exploration (43% and 46%, respectively). Representing and recording occurred rarely (5% and 0%, respectively) and scientific language, such as naming species, happened on occasion (17% and 14%, respectively). Importantly, children on the playground only used science language while participating in a teacher-led activity, while children at the playscape used science language during independent play.

Although children at both the playscape and the playground engaged in the various types of play and science inquiry at similar rates overall, closer analyses of specific locations within each play area revealed differences. Within the playscape, there were four locations (water, woods, cave, and gravel pit) at which children engaged in all three observed types of play (functional, constructive, and dramatic); in contrast, the playground offered only one location that spurred the same variety of play. Researchers also observed at least three types of science inquiry taking place at four locations within the playscape, while none of the playground locations saw more than two types of science inquiry. Altogether, these findings support playscapes as facilitating diverse play and inquiry experiences for young children.

The playscape also seemed to offer more opportunities for the children to build curiosity and respect toward nature. In several instances, preschoolers at the playscape interacted with slugs and insects. Video clips of these interactions showed children naming the creatures, observing their characteristics, exclaiming their cuteness, and attempting to protect them from harm. One preschooler expressed, “Don’t kill nature, guys.” The presence of these actions at the playscape, but not at the playground, may reflect the greater number of opportunities for nature engagement in the playscape.

As encouraging as these results are, this study has limitations. The researchers emphasize that the study was a preliminary look at the potential of playscapes, as it was observational rather than experimental in design. Further, the study did not control for differences in demographics between the two groups, which may have influenced how children interacted with their play areas. Results may also be confounded by the fact that one play area was entirely new to the children (the playscape), while the other was familiar (the playground). Finally, intentionally or unintentionally, the videographers may have biased the data through what they chose to capture on video.

The Bottom Line

Playscapes have the potential to connect children with nature in diverse, play-based, and science-rich ways. Because they are safe, enclosed spaces that also contain natural elements, they may offer a best-of-both-worlds scenario for educators who wish to facilitate science inquiry and nature connections, while effectively managing a large group of young students. Within a playscape, the rich variety of nature-based locations (such as water, woods, and caves) provides opportunities for children to play in multiple ways, engage in student-led exploration and observation, and use science language. Those opportunities may foster lasting curiosity about and appreciation for the natural world.