Research Summary

Running Wild: Engaging and empowering future custodians of place through creative nature-based play

Creative nature-based play embedded in the participatory arts fosters children’s connection to nature and promotes their ability to act as agents of change in their local environment

Journal of Public Pedagogies,

This case study focuses on a practice-led research project, referred to as “Running Wild.” Planners of the project recognized “the urgent need for new approaches to environmental learning that celebrate children’s agency, supporting them to directly contribute to ecological systems and global sustainability across communities.” The research arm of this project explored the potential of creative nature-based play in fostering children’s identity and understanding of the natural world.

Several community groups were involved in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of Running Wild. These groups included a community theatre group, a primary school and the Royal Botanic Gardens in Australia. Individuals working with the project included local artists, scientists and Indigenous elders. The aim of the project was to introduce students to a nature reserve (“The Pines”) near their school through art-making activities.  A group of 36 students participated in the Running Wild program over a period of 12 days across five weeks. During this time, they were introduced to both Western and Indigenous perspectives of ecology within the reserve, participated in tree planting activities, constructed a village of ‘bush cubbies’, made spirit animal costumes, conducted information tours of The Pines, made a short film, and created an outdoor exhibition and performance for their families. Most of the students lived in neighborhoods with high levels of socio-economic disadvantage and spent most of the time outside of school playing video games or watching television rather than playing outside. At the beginning of the project, the students showed a strong resistance to being outside in nature and  remarkably low fitness levels.

Sources of data for the research project included interviews and observations conducted with the project collaborators, teachers and children. Field notes, journal notations, and photographs were also used. In addition to increased nature-connection on the part of the children, other positive outcomes of the project included “a significant effect on children’s mental wellbeing as well as their learning abilities.” Even the less academically-focused students showed improved learning capacities and leadership qualities. The students also gained a deeper understanding of biodiversity and the importance of native species, both plants and animals. Over time,  the children became more comfortable in the natural environment and began to express their capacity for agency and independence in the environment. The children also became more comfortable and skilled in working together on collaborative activities.

Overall, the project demonstrated “the value of creative nature-based play in allowing young people to freely engage in their local environments, with each other and with the wider community.” The process promoted children's connection to nature and encouraged them to have agency within their local environment. This research adds to the growing scholarship exploring ways in which the participatory arts can be used to promote children’s understanding of sustainability and their capacity for making meaningful contributions to a more sustainable future.