Nature play leads to A+ grades

Friday 10 November, 2023

There’s a somewhat simple solution for making school a walk in the park for kids – do exactly that and make it a park! 

Studies have shown time spent playing in nature-based playgrounds can translate to better academic results for school children. 

Dr Kathleen Bagot is a Melbourne-based environmental psychologist and a researcher at the Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health, and Monash University. She has spent years studying the physical and mental health benefits of time in nature, including a PhD exploring different types of school playgrounds on students’ academic performance. 

Her research has shown a link between greener and more natural play areas and stronger academic results among students, when compared to those students whose school playgrounds were predominantly concrete and asphalt. 

Dr Kathleen Bagot at Braeside Park playground

Photo: Dr Kathleen Bagot's research has shown there are numerous positive benefits for children who use nature-based playgrounds. 

A nature-based playground is a type of outdoor recreational space designed to provide children with opportunities for play and exploration in a natural, nature-inspired setting. Unlike traditional playgrounds, which often feature plastic or metal equipment on concrete or rubberized surfaces, nature-based playgrounds prioritize the use of natural materials and elements, such as wood, stone, sand, water, and living plants.  

These playgrounds are designed to create a more organic and immersive play environment, connecting children with the natural world. 

Dr Bagot’s research showed that primary school students that had access to a nature-based playground to use at recess and lunch had higher academic results. 

“What I was able to identify was that children who had spent time in a greener playground reported that their play period was more restorative, that they felt more refreshed and were better able to pay attention going back into the classroom,” Dr Bagot said. 

“That then translated into those children paying better attention, which led to better performance on standardised academic testing for maths, spelling, reading and writing.” 

The study involved more than 500 children aged between 8-11 years old across more than a dozen primary schools. 

“I went around and measured all the vegetation at each school playground in cubic metres, and then measured the students’ attention and their memory through a range of cognitive tasks before and after playtime. Then I compared those children who had time in a green playground and those who had a more urban and asphalt playground,” Dr Bagot said. 

“I was controlling for all sorts of variations, like age, gender and size of playgrounds, ensuring different socio-economic areas were represented, and what the children did during play time, whether they were active or sedentary, played alone or in groups – things which might impact how they’re feeling after recess. 

“And even with all of that, it still held up that those students that spent time in greener playgrounds had better academic outcomes.” 

Dr Bagot said it was important to note these benefits don’t just come from playing during school time, but rather from spending time in nature and playing outdoors in general. Parks Victoria has a huge number of nature-based playgrounds spread across the state which get plenty of use by children each weekend. 

Nature-based playgrounds have important health benefits for children

Photo: Nature-based playgrounds, like the one at Yabby Hill in Jells Park, have plenty of physical and mental health benefits for children and parents alike.

“These types of playgrounds are great - not only are children getting the physical and psychological benefits of playing outdoors, but the parents who take them to the playground are also getting these benefits just from being in nature as well.” 

“Time in these spaces can give visitors a mental refresh, better problem-solving, a better night’s sleep and stronger immune system. This can lead them to be calmer and less stressed, have improved mood, even better night’s sleep and that can really set them up well for the week ahead,” Dr Bagot said. 

In her spare time, Dr Bagot runs Nothing Like Nature which provides nature-based wellbeing sessions in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs and on the Mornington Peninsula. 

Nothing Like Nature is one of over 400 Parks Victoria Licensed Tour Operators, which collectively offer over 60 different types of activities across the state. Using a Licensed Tour Operator is one of the best ways to get into nature, and doing so supports the conservation and management of Victoria’s parks and waterways. 

Children of all abilities are encouraged to play in nature-based playgrounds.

Photo: Studies have shown spending time playing in parks and nature has enormous benefits for people of all ages and abilities.

“I always have to rein myself in when I’m talking about the benefits of nature because the number and variation of the benefits supported by the research is huge. 

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s children, parents, older adults, adolescents, children with attention difficulties, or people with high blood pressure or who may be anxious. 

“It is just extraordinary that all of these different types of people can experience benefits from spending time in nature, but that’s exactly what the research shows.” 


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