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Landscape as Playscape: The Effects of Natural Environments on Children's Play and Motor Development


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This study investigated the impacts of playing in a natural environment on motor development in children. Methods from landscape ecology were applied for landscape analysis and entered into a Geographic Information System (GIS). Localization of play habitats was done by use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS). A quasi-experimental study was conducted on five-, six-, and seven-year old children with an experimental group playing in a natural environment and a control group playing in a more traditional playground. When provided with a natural landscape in which to play, children showed a statistically significant increase in motor fitness. There were also significant differences between the two groups in balance and co-ordination in favor of the experimental group. The findings indicate that landscape features influence physical activity play and motor development in children.
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Children, Youth and Environments 14(2), 2004
Landscape as Playscape: The Effects of Natural
Environments on Children’s Play and Motor
Ingunn Fjørtoft
Telemark University College
Faculty of Arts, Folk Culture and Teacher Education
Citation: Fjørtoft, Ingunn. (2004). “Landscape as Playscape: The Effects of
Natural Environments on Children’s Play and Motor Development.” Children,
Youth and Environments 14(2): 21-44. Retrieved [date] from
Comment on This Article
This study investigated the impacts of playing in a natural environment on motor
development in children. Methods from landscape ecology were applied for landscape
analysis and entered into a Geographic Information System (GIS). Localization of play
habitats was done by use of Global Positioning Systems (GPS). A quasi-experimental
study was conducted on five-, six-, and seven-year old children with an experimental
group playing in a natural environment and a control group playing in a more traditional
playground. When provided with a natural landscape in which to play, children showed a
statistically significant increase in motor fitness. There were also significant differences
between the two groups in balance and co-ordination in favor of the experimental group.
The findings indicate that landscape features influence physical activity play and motor
development in children.
Keywords: children, natural environment, playscape, landscape
, physical activity play, motor development.
© 2004 Children, Youth and Environments
Landscape as Playscape
The natural environment has traditionally been a site for play and physical
activity for many children, but modern societies seem to have neglected the
value of such environments for the development of children and adolescents. A
generation ago, children had access to wild lands and used them for exploring,
challenging and exercising the skills needed to master a challenging landscape
and unforeseen situations. Today, children’s physical play environments and
facilities for play are changing and the opportunities for free play in stimulating
environments seem to be declining (Esbensen 1990, MMI 1997). There is a
growing concern that children are becoming more sedentary in their
adolescence, and scenarios predict enervated health later in life due to an
inactive adolescence (Andersen et al. 1998, Heggebø 2003). Early studies by
Hart (1979), Moore (1986), More and Wong (1997), Rivkin (1990; 1995),
Titman (1994) and others describe the value of complex environments and wild
lands for children, and how children perceive and experience wild lands as places
of their own domain. Recently scholars have focused their attention on how the
natural environment affords possibilities and challenges for children to explore
their own abilities for exercise, playing and skill mastery. Focus has been
directed on learning effects from the natural environment and its impact on
children’s development. For example, some Scandinavian studies have described
and analyzed how natural environments affect learning qualities in children such
as play behavior and motor skills (Fjortoft 2000a; Grahn et al. 1997). Lindholm
(1995) found a relationship between the presence of natural environments in or
around schoolyards and students’ activities during their breaks. The students’
activities were remarkably more creative with the presence of a natural
environment. Baranowski et al. (1993) found a consistently higher activity level
among three and four year-olds outdoors than indoors, and the environment
seemed to be the strongest predictor of physical activity in pre-school children.
Traditionally, outdoor playgrounds are designed to facilitate children’s play and
are intended to enhance their physical, social, emotional and cognitive
development (Hart 1993). Even though traditional playgrounds are anticipated
to promote children’s play, their design does not meet children’s needs for
exploring their environment. The traditional playground is typically flat, barren,
covered with asphalt, and equipped with climbing bars, a swing, a sandpit, a
seesaw, and a slide. Usually the equipment is made of metal (Frost 1992; Hartle
and Johnson 1993). Such playgrounds have not been found to be very
challenging and even very young children or those with motor behavior deficits
do not explore their potential on these playgrounds (Frost 1992).
Natural environments represent different play opportunities for children. The
rough surface provides movement challenges, and topography and vegetation
provide a diversity of different designs for playing and moving. The present
study documents and discusses the importance of natural environments in
children’s play, physical activity and motor development.
Outdoor Play Environments: Why Nature?
Play activities have proved to increase with the complexity of the environment
and the opportunities for play (Frost and Strickland 1985, Wilkinson 1980).
Children’s play also is more vigorous outdoors than indoors (Henninger 1980),
and play forms take different group and gender constellations outdoors than
Landscape as Playscape
indoors (Baranowsky et al. 1993; Kirkby 1984; Rivkin 1990). Options for choice,
opportunities for play, and the possibility to construct and re-organize play
settings are irreplaceable values in children’s play environments (Lindholm
1995). Titman (1994) very clearly showed children’s preferences for outdoor
play environments. The environmental qualities most appreciated by children
included: colors in nature, trees, woodlands, shifting topography, shaded areas,
meadows, places for climbing and construction, and challenging places for
exploring and experience. This indicates that children have a desire for more
complex, challenging and exciting play environments than the traditional
playgrounds usually offered them.
Rivkin (1990) mentioned some specific qualities of the outdoor room favored by
children. For example, they prefer the “realness” of physical attributes over toys
and sham. Furthermore, the symbolism and images that can make an
environment magical during children’s dramatic play demand a certain sense of
“placeness.” Similarly, she emphasized that open-ended spaces and the forms of
landscapes and objects often have associative qualities and give meaning to
children’s play and imagination. Likewise, lines and shapes in the landscape give
the children a conception of space and form. For example, children prefer
multifaceted forms to plain ones and they relate better to softened edges and
curves in the landscape. Layering the landscape with bushes and corners affords
looking through and gives a sense of depth and diversity. Rivkin mentioned
several other qualities of outdoor rooms which are intriguing to children,
including: places that engage the senses through textures, sounds, fragrant
smells from vegetation and natural elements; novelty and unpredictability;
unusualness and incongruity; and surprise and discovery. Although Rivkin did
not refer solely to natural landscapes, she emphasized complex and diverse
environments for play.
Moore and Wong (1997) described the turning of a yard from an asphalt square
into an environmental garden with naturalized settings. Children’s perceptions of
the yard after the re-formation included diversity, richness, a place to belong,
caring for nature, and a friendlier atmosphere. Interviews with the children five
and 20 years later revealed memories of fascination with the yard and the
complexity of its plants and animals. They frequently recalled the landscape
features that afforded play, such as the little clearings, the bridge over the
stream, the stepping stones in the pond, all the bushes and the trees to climb.
The children who spent time in the Environmental Yard expressed greater
environmental awareness, attended natural events, were more innovative in
their play, and increased their fantasy play using objects that were readily
available from the environment. They also became more interactive with the
natural environment outside school.
The Impact of the Environment on Development and Learning
The ecological approach to development stresses the interrelationships between
the individual and the environment (Haywood 1993). One ecological perspective
is dynamic systems theory, which emphasizes process rather than product or
hierarchically structured plans. It places neural maturation on an equal plane
with other structures and processes that interact to promote motor development
(Thelen 1992). Cooperating systems include musculo-skeletal components,
sensory systems, and central sensor-motor integrative mechanisms. This co-
Landscape as Playscape
operation of systems has a co-coordinative structure and the resulting
movement emerges from self-organization of body systems, the nature of the
performer’s environment and the demands of the task (Haywood 1993;
Vereijken, Whiting, and Beek 1992). In this theoretical approach, the internal
components of the organism and the external context of the task jointly co-
determine the outcome of behavior (Campbell 1994). Dynamic systems theory
goes beyond the metaphoric level of behavioral development change and looks
into the variables that cause change (Vereijken 1997).
A second branch of the ecological approach is the perception-action perspective
introduced by Gibson (1979) as the Theory of Affordances. In this theory, Gibson
proposed that a close interrelationship exists between the perceptual and motor
systems. To be ecologically valid, i.e., applicable to the real world, perception
cannot be studied independently of movement, and the individual has to be
studied in relation to its surrounding environment. The term “affordances”
describes the functions environmental objects can provide to an individual. For
example, if a rock has a smooth and horizontal surface, it affords a person a
place to sit. If a tree is properly branched, it affords a person the opportunity to
climb it. This exemplifies an intertwined relationship between individuals and the
environment and implies that people assess environmental properties in relation
to themselves, not in relation to an objective standard (Konczak 1990).
Problem and Aims of the Study
The present paper focuses on two issues related to children’s play and
development, namely, the value of the natural environment as a playground for
children, and the ability of such landscapes to afford challenging and stimulating
play environments for children.
The domain of children’s motor development has been addressed through
numerous research projects (e.g., Thelen and Smith 1994; Ulrich 1997;
Sigmundsson and Rostoft 2003), but just a few (Fjørtoft 2000, Grahn et al.
1997) have related motor fitness development to play activities in the natural
environment. Thus, the main purpose of this study was to investigate the
relationship between children’s motor development and playing in a natural
Definition of Concepts
Natural environments are here defined as environments not designed or
cultivated by humans. The natural environment in this project is bounded as a
small forest located close to a kindergarten. Facilities for play are defined here
by structures in topography and vegetation that afford different types of play
(i.e., trees for climbing, slopes for sliding, fields for running, etc.). Play activities
are classified according to Piaget (1962) and Frost (1992) into categories of
functional play, construction play and symbol play. These are play forms that
enhance physical activity and gross motor movements. The definition of motor
fitness, based on Gallahue (1987), is the abilities of coordination, speed, agility,
power and balance. Playscape is defined by Frost (1992) as a landscape that
affords children the ability to play.
Landscape as Playscape
Study Design and Analysis
The model in Figure 1 illustrates the logical framework for the study. The
research has a quasi-experimental design which examines the effects of
children’s playing in a natural environment on their motor development. The
dependent variable is motor development, measured as motor fitness in
children. The independent variables are: 1) the landscape structures that afford
physical activity play in children, and 2) how children use those structures for
Figure 1. Study Framework Model
Vegetation Symbolic Play
Motor Fitness
Slope and
Measured As:
Fitness Tests
Materials and Methods
Experimental and control groups were selected from voluntary kindergartens
with the same original playground opportunities in the same geographic area.
Both groups were selected as stratified samples, as randomization was not
possible due to the available kindergartens and numbers of children in each age
group. The experimental group was offered a natural playscape as playground,
while the controls continued using the kindergarten playground. It was
investigated whether the play of children in the experimental group in the
natural playscape would have any effect on their motor development compared
to the control group.
Methodology for Landscape Analysis
The area was described using methods from landscape ecology and
geomorphology (Fjørtoft and Sageie 2000), based on two landscape elements:
vegetation and topography. The vegetation was mapped by field inventory on
aerial photos at the scale 1:6000 (Paine and Luba 1980; Ihse 1989; 1995). The
vegetation was described according to the Norwegian classification system based
Landscape as Playscape
on Fremstad (1997), where each unit is classified by phytosociology and
physiognomy. Phytosociology describes the vegetation based on the composition
of the plant cover with the dominating and/or characteristic species as
indicators. The physiognomy is the vegetation structure such as main growth
forms and cover.
Analysis of topography was based on methods from geomorphometry by slope
and roughness. Slope (in degrees) and roughness were derived from contour
lines in the municipality base map at the scale 1:1000 with one meter
equidistance. Roughness is often described as the second derivative function of
the height of the surface (i.e., the slope of the slope) (Berry 1997), and
describes the “diversity of topography.” Analysis of slope and roughness was
based on the Digital Elevation Model (DEM) (Burrough 1996).
The surface elevation was modeled and analyzed, as contour lines, profiles,
altitude matrices, regular grids and Triangulated Irregular Network (TIN). Berry
(1997) claims that one final surface configuration factor taken into consideration
is profile. Consequently, two methods were used for profiling, including terrain
measurements by use of geodetic methods and the deriving of profiles from
Profiling was applied to describe the differences in topography between the
natural playscape of the experimental group and the outdoor playground of the
comparison group.
Methods from landscape ecology and geomorphometry were used for the
description of the study area and the analyses of landscape ecology metrics
(Dramstad et al. 1996; Fjørtoft and Sageie 2000). Play habitats were mapped by
use of differential Global Positioning Systems (GPS). Data from landscape
ecology were entered in a Geographical Information System (GIS) for analysis
and visualization. The landscape analyses and application of GIS and GPS are
described in more detail by Fjørtoft and Sageie (2000).
Landscape Ecology
The theories of landscape ecology are based on the structure, function and
change of landscapes (Forman 1995; Dramstad et al. 1996). A landscape’s
structure refers to the topography and physiognomy of its vegetation. Function
is the interaction among the spatial elements in the ecosystem (Forman and
Godron 1986; McGarigal and Marcs 1998). In the present context, function is
referred to as the interaction between the structure and the complexity of the
topography and vegetation. The physical patterns of habitat complexity or
diversity include its structure, composition and function (Skånes 1997). Diversity
in the landscape (i.e., diversity in topography and vegetation) was related to
children’s play behavior and its effect on their motor fitness.
Change in the landscape may be explained through the alteration of the
structures and functions of the ecological mosaic over time (Skånes 1996). It is
possible to interpret change in the landscape according to the seasons. This
perspective was applied to explain how seasonal changes affected the children’s
play in the landscape.
Landscape as Playscape
Habitat is defined as the space or place used by one or more organisms co-
existing with each other. The habitat often comprises different biotopes that can
be used in different seasons or for different purposes (Heywood and Watson
1995, Ims 1992, Skånes1997). In this study the concept of play habitats refers
to the places used by the children for different forms of play.
Physical Activity Play
Play behavior that constituted physical activity was observed and classified in
three categories (Frost 1992):
1. Functional play (physical play activities: identified and categorized in
subgroups such as running and tumbling, climbing rocks and sliding
slopes, climbing trees, and playful skiing).
2. Constructive play (building huts and shelters and playing with loose parts,
sticks, cones, pebbles, etc.).
3. Symbolic play (role-play, dramatic play and social play like play house,
pirates, etc.).
Play activities were observed and logged by the kindergarten teacher, who wrote
down the children’s play behavior using their own phrasing. Later this
information was systematized by the researcher and classified according to
Piaget (1962) and Frost (1992). The actual habitats named and used by the
children for specific play activities were recorded and referred to as reference
areas or habitats for the different forms of play.
The Study
The study was carried out with five- to seven-year-old children in kindergartens
in Telemark, Norway, using a quasi-experimental approach (Robson 1993;
Thomas and Nelson 1985). The groups were selected from three kindergartens
with comparable age groups. The experimental group of 46 children from one
kindergarten was offered free play and versatile activities in the nearby forest.
This group used the forest every day for one to two hours throughout the year.
29 children of the same age groups from two kindergartens in the neighboring
district were chosen to be a comparison group. Using multiple regression
analysis, with parents’ educational and professional background as variables, the
two groups’ socio-economic living conditions were found to be comparable. The
comparison group used the traditional outdoor playground for one to two hours a
day and visited natural sites only occasionally. Both control groups had the same
standard playground equipment, such as sandpit, a swing, a seesaw, a slide and
a climbing house in their outdoor playground. The study started with a pre-test
in September. The observation period lasted for nine months, and was
terminated with a post-test in June the following year.
The experimental and control groups were both tested with the European Test of
Physical Fitness (EUROFIT) Motor Fitness Test (Adam et al. 1988). The data
were collected by the author and a trained assistant who was a kindergarten
teacher. The test included the following items: flamingo balance test (standing
on one foot) for testing of general balance; plate tapping (rapid tapping of two
plates alternatively with preferred hand) measuring the speed of limb
movement; sit and reach expressing flexibility in knee and thigh joints; standing
Landscape as Playscape
broad jump (jumping for distance from a standing start) measuring explosive
strength; sit-ups (maximum numbers of sit-ups achievable in half a minute)
measuring trunk strength; bent arm hang (maintaining a bent arm position while
hanging from a bar) for testing of functional strength in arms and shoulders, and
shuttle run (sprinting to a turn-around point and back) testing running speed
and agility. Two additional tests were used: beam walking for testing dynamic
balance, and Indian skip (clapping right knee with left hand and vice versa), for
testing cross co-ordination (Fjørtoft 2000b).
Data analyses were performed with SPSS/PC+, the PC version of the Statistical
Package for the Social Sciences (Norusis 1993; Frude 1993), including frequency
distributions, means and the T-test for independent samples and paired
samples, correlations, multiple regression analyses and factor analyses (Fjørtoft
2000a; 2000b; 2001).
Reliability and Validity
Landscape analyses followed strict methods for vegetation mapping and
classification (Skånes 1997; Fjørtoft and Sageie 2000) and professionals
performed the field inventory Computerized data were analyzed with the help of
software programs FRAGSTATS*ARC and Geographic Information Systems
(GIS). Topography was measured instrumentally and by Global Positioning
System (GPS) with an accuracy of five meters. Topographical data was
implemented and analyzed in ARC/INFO.
Reliability of the motor fitness tests was checked by retesting all items after a
one-week interval. Validity was established by correlations of results of field
tests with laboratory monitoring of two test items.
The Natural Playscape
The study area, defined as the natural playscape, was the forest and fields next
to the experimental kindergarten located in Bø, Telemark County, Norway. The
forest was located outside the fence behind the kindergarten (Figure 2). The
total area of the forest and the fields was 7.7 hectares (19 acres) and the area
of the defined playscape was 6.8 hectares (16.8 acres). The landscape pattern
showed a mosaic of patches of woodland interspersed with some open spaces of
rocks, open fields and meadows. The topography, expressed as slope and
roughness, was varied, including some steep cliffs, slopes and plains. Vegetation
and topography jointly afforded a diversity of play habitats for the children. The
experimental group used this area one to two hours each day accompanied by a
kindergarten teacher.
The children used some favorite places in the forest more frequently than
others. These play habitats were located close to the kindergarten and
represented specific play habitats for summer and winter play activities. The
play habitats used in the spring, summer and autumn time were all located
immediately behind the kindergarten. The natural playscape included five
different types of woodland, with the low-herb woodland being the dominant
type of vegetation (Figure 3). The mixture of woodland types represented a high
diversity in vegetation elements.
Landscape as Playscape
Figure 2. The Kindergarten and the Forest
Figure 3. Vegetation Maps of the Forest
Landscape as Playscape
The variety of woodland vegetation and the physiognomy of trees and shrubs in
the area afforded multiple choices for play. The shrubs constituted a mixture of
scattered species, which afforded shelter and hiding, as well as social play and
construction play. Very special was the flexible juniper bush, which motivated
functional play (getting in and out) and social play (playing house) as well. Some
trees were suitable for climbing depending on the branching pattern, the stem
diameter, and the flexibility of the tree. The young deciduous trees were easily
accessible for climbing (Figure 4).
The spruces were more suitable for hiding than for climbing due to the dense
branches. The more open areas in the pine and low-herb woodland afforded
running, chase and catch, leapfrog, tag and other games. The shrubs afforded
hide-and seek, building dens and shelters and role playing games like house-
and-home or pirates, and fantasy and function play (Figure 5).
Figure 4. Tree Climbing Figure 5. Hiding and Role-Play
Figure 6. Climbing Rocks
Landscape as Playscape
The topography was undulating with terraces and slopes and a dominant cliff
traversing the area, which afforded slopes for sliding and cliffs for climbing
(Figure 6). Roughness showed changes in the topographical curvature and an
equal amount of convex and concave changes in the terrain (Figure 7).
Figure 7. Topography of the Playscape and Core Activity Areas
The Affordance for Play
The children’s favorite places were named “The Cone War,” located at a patch of
pine forest affording cones to throw at each other; “The Space Ship,” located at
a big rock affording different forms of fantasy play; and “The Cliff,” located at a
steep rocky wall affording jumping off, sliding and climbing (see notations in
Figure 7). It is clear from the place names that different play activities
corresponded with different landscape features, relating to the affordances of the
vegetation and the topography. Sliding slopes and climbing rocks were naturally
found in areas with a slope of 15 – 30 degrees. Table 1 shows different slope
values in areas for climbing and sliding (22.5 degrees, SD=7.8) than in areas for
construction play (10.3, SD=3.4). The same effects were found in the values of
roughness which were higher and more dramatic in areas for climbing and
sliding (-0.8, SD=4.8) than for construction play areas (-0.1, SD=1.5) where the
surface is smoother. Characteristically, areas for symbol play and constructive
play also differ in vegetation physiognomy from areas for running, sliding and
skiing (Table 1).
Table 1. Play Activities Related to Landscape Characteristics
Play Activities
Vegetation Class Climbing
Density of
Physiognomy of vegetation reported in percentage of playscape area, topography reported as mean
Topography reported as mean values and degrees of slope
Roughness is a derivative of height
Landscape as Playscape
Landscape as Playscape
The play habitats around the kindergarten were also used during the wintertime,
but they were used differently. The cliff turned into sliding slopes, and a dense
snow layer made the trees more accessible for climbing (see Figure 4). The deep
snow provided affordances for tumbling, rolling and other acrobatics. The
meadow located next to the kindergarten comprised a soccer field and the lower
parts of a ski jump arena. In the winter it was used by the kindergarten almost
solely as a skiing arena. The more gentle slopes of the ski-jump arena (7.0
degrees, SD=8.3, roughness=0.2, SD=2.3) were used for different skiing
disciplines (see Table 1 and Figure 7).
The topography showed a variety of slopes in the study area. Total altitude was
approximately 50 meters, with the cliff measuring 20-30 meters with slopes
varying from 15 to 30 degrees. The playground of the comparison group
showed only a 2 meter variation in altitude and an almost flat slope (Figure 8).
Figure 8. Terrain Profiles in Study Area and Comparison Areas
Motor Fitness
There were no significant differences in age between the groups, and there was
a mean age of 6.1 years. The six-year-olds dominated both groups. There was a
predominance of boys in the experimental group (27 boys, 19 girls), whereas in
the comparison group there were more girls (18 girls and 11 boys). There were
no significant differences in test results between the sexes. Body mass and
height did not differ significantly between the groups or between the sexes.
Multiple regression analyses correlating test results with background variables,
such as parents’ education and profession, showed that these variables had no
significant influence on the test results.
Landscape as Playscape
During the intervention period a gradual improvement in motor ability was
observed in the experimental group. The children became strikingly better at
mastering a rugged and unstructured landscape. The impact of the environment
on the children’s motor ability was documented in the motor fitness tests. Table
2 and Figure 9 show the main test results of motor development in both groups.
At the motor fitness pre-test, the comparison group scored better than the
experimental group (Table 2). At the post-test the experimental group had
caught up with the comparison group and exhibited significant improvement
between the pre- and post-test in all the test items except for flexibility (sit and
reach). The improvement within the comparison group was not as striking (Table
2). Specifically, the experimental group showed significant intervention effects
in the flamingo balance test (p<. 001) and the Indian skip co-ordination test (p<
.01) (Figure 9).
Table 2. Mean Pre- and Post-Test Results within the Groups (SPSS T-
test for paired samples)
Experimental Group Comparison Group
Pre-Test Post-Test Pre-Test Post-Test
Flamingo (#
of instabilities
in 30 seconds)
4.7 (0.8) 1.5 (0.3) *** 4.0 (0.6) 3.3 (0.7)
Plate Tapping
(time in
seconds for 50
35.0 (1.9) 28.1 (1.2) *** 29.9 (1.1) 27.4 (2.6)
Sit and Reach
24.9 (0.8) 24.4 (0.8) 25.3 (1.0) 25.5 (0.9)
Broad Jump
102.8 (2.9) 113.1 (3.6) *** 103.1 (4.3) 111.3 (3.8) **
Sit-Ups (# in
30 seconds)
5.3 (0.6) 6.5 (0.6) ** 5.9 (0.8) 7.0 (1.1)
Bent Arm
2.6 (0.4) 7.0 (1.0) *** 2.6 (0.6) 5.4 (1.1) ***
Beam Walking
11.4 (1.4) 7.5 (0.7) ** 7.7 (0.8) 7.2 (1.1)
Indian Skip (#
in 30 seconds)
21.8 (2.2) 43.6 (1.9) *** 27.8 (2.4) 37.2 (1.8) ***
Shuttle Run
31.9 (0.7) 29.7 (0.5) ** 30.7 (0.8) 30.3 (0.7)
** = p < .01
*** = p < .001
Landscape as Playscape
Figure 9. Group Differences in Physical Activity Test Results
Indian Skip-
Experimental Group
Comparison Group
Learning from nature is a complex topic that demands a multi-dimensional
approach. It has social, anthropological, biological, ecological, pedagogical and
psychological aspects, and jointly, studies of these varied aspects would explain
a great deal of the natural environment’s influence on children’s play behavior,
learning and development. The present study took two main approaches. First, a
natural environment as a playground for children was analyzed and described,
applying traditional methods from landscape ecology and geomorphology. This
study applies these methods to a new field, i.e., natural playscapes for children.
Methodological innovation in non-traditional settings may incur the risk of low
validity and reliability, but this may be the cost of exploring new fields.
This study was a field experimental design. Field research may involve several
threats to internal and external validity (Thomas and Nelson 1996). Internal
validity was considered the most crucial threat to the present study. The first
issue was the selection bias that caused a non-randomized design. Second,
there was a danger of uncontrolled variables impacting the intervention. A third
potential challenge was the influence of maturation, but this was considered to
be an equal factor in both the experimental group and control group, as both
groups tended to be equal in mean age, body weight and height, although not in
gender composition. Finally, another potential bias to the study design was the
socio-economic background of the two groups. However, in rural Norway social
class does not segregate children’s leisure time activities, and regression
Landscape as Playscape
analyses did not reveal any significant influences of socio-economic class on the
motor test results (Fjørtoft 2000).
Playing in Nature
Nature, whether a forest, seashore, creek, or mountain area, represents a
dynamic environment and a stimulating and challenging playground for children.
In this study, the natural environment of a forest was considered to be a
potential playscape for children. The interpretation of landscape ecology metrics
and topography as playscapes for children focused on Gibson’s theory of
affordances (1979, 127), explained as:
the affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal (or the
child), what it provides or furnishes, either for good or for evil.
Heft (1988) further elaborated this concept by explaining how children perceive
the functions of the environment and utilize them for play: If a tree is climbable
it affords climbing; if a stone fits the hand it is grasp-able or throw-able and thus
affords grasping and throwing. If a slope is smooth and steep enough it is slide-
able and thus affords sliding. The forest in this study was a play with landscape
characteristics that afforded structures for different play activities.
Functional play was predominant when the children in the study played in
nature. Functional play comprises gross-motor activities and basic skills like
running, jumping, throwing, climbing, crawling, rolling, swinging, sliding, etc.
These activities, which Pelligrini and Smith (1998) called physical activity play,
were linked in this study to games like play tag, chase and catch, leapfrog, hide
and seek, making angels in the snow, and other games involving basic
movements. These activities were also linked to special places and structures in
the landscape (Fjørtoft and Sageie 2000). More skill-related activities like skiing
were also included in this category of functional play.
Construction play is the type of play afforded by loose parts. It includes building
shelters, dens and other constructions with loose parts such as cones and sticks.
According to Leotjev’s learning theories, construction play may be characterized
as process learning (Jerlang and Ringsted 1988). An example of such process-
oriented play in this study would be the construction of a shelter of spruce
branches. Building dens in the forest is motivated by the excitement of the
building process, rather than the finished product. Often, when the construction
of a shelter is finished, it no longer holds interest for the children and a new
construction project commences. Construction play affords various forms of
learning: planning is needed for the concept of construction, choice of materials,
and getting hold of the materials needed. Constructions need framework,
covering and ropes for binding. All this requires cognitive processes as well as
gross and fine motor skills. This process is also consistent with Vygotskij’s
learning theories, where play is the leading activity in child development: play
includes imagination and leads to perception and action. This study also
illustrated Nicholson’s Theory of Loose Parts (1971) through the children’s
building projects and their playing with cones in the habitat known as “The Cone
War.” In wintertime, children substituted snow for loose parts (e.g., snow balls).
Landscape as Playscape
Symbol play involves playing together and can be described as role play or
fantasy play, including such activities as playing house, pirates, or farmer with
cones and sticks. In this study, there were some gender differences in symbol
play. The boys preferred pirates or Indians and cowboys, while girls seemed to
prefer playing house. The latter took place in different settings: between bushes,
below low-branched spruces, or in the snow where the house was nicely
organized in different rooms.
Surprisingly, a prickly juniper bush was a popular site for play in this study. It
afforded possibilities to hide without being locked out from the activities going
on outside. Several forms of play took place there, such as playing house, red
Indians and cowboys, pirates, Star Wars, and other fantasy- and story-related
play forms. A widely branched juniper bush became a house with several rooms
and its dynamic “walls” would embrace the whole group of 12 children.
Traditional play patterns changed in these outdoor play settings as boys and
girls played more together and were less age-segregated. Kirkby (1989) made
similar observations regarding juniper bushes, noting that children prefer small
enclosures with a view.
These examples of how the children’s use of the natural environment resulted in
a multitude of play forms illustrate the theories of Bronfenbrenner (1979) and
Gibson (1979). The children’s play in the context of daily interaction with the
local environment in terms of activities, roles and relations, refers to what is
going on in the microsystem. Furthermore, according to Gibson, it is the features
in the natural environment that afford and facilitate such play forms, roles and
Natural Environments as Determinants for Play and Learning
As explained by Heft (1988), a functional approach to the environment
corresponds well to the ways children relate to it: children intuitively use their
environment for physical challenges and play. Gibson (1979) notes that children
perceive the functions of the environment and use them for play. In the context
of the present study, function refers to the structure and complexity of the
environment. The complexity of the environment was defined as the variety in
landscape forms and structure, and variety in vegetation such as phytosociology
and physiognomy (Figure 3). These functions afforded a range of uses as
exemplified through different play forms (Table 1).
In this study play habitat comprised the different landscape elements and
vegetation types and structures that afforded children’s play. The topography
expressed by the slope and roughness of the playscape produced different
habitats defined by the affordance of various activities, including: slopes for
sliding, cliffs for climbing, and snowy hills for skiing. Moreover, the vegetation
represented a variety of structures and functions (Fjørtoft and Sageie 2000).
Trees were available in the climbing habitats, shrubs in the hiding, construction
and role-play habitats; open fields formed the running/ catch and seek habitats
(Table 1). These habitats corresponded to the children’s intuitive perception of
the landscape elements, and thus became determinants for the children’s play
Landscape as Playscape
Change in the playscape was described as changes in climate and seasons and
the corresponding changes in the structure and functions of the landscape. Such
changes may be perceived through the changing structures of deciduous trees
with changing seasons. As they changed, those trees gave a different expression
and afforded different functions with small, green leaves in springtime, with a
rich leafiness in summer, a leafy splendor in autumn, and some leafless
“skeletons” in winter. These seasonal changes in structure provided different
play habitats with different affordances. In winter, a dense snow layer changed
the play habitats and consequently so did the affordances. The high-stemmed
trees became easily accessible for climbing, the steep slopes became slide-able,
and the meadows turned into marvelous arenas for skiing. Thus, changes in the
landscape influenced children’s play behavior.
From a landscape ecological aspect, change in the playscape can also be related
to how the children’s use of the landscape affects the landscape itself, i.e., wear
and tear of vegetation elements. Wear resistance of a landscape varies with the
tolerance and resilience of different vegetation types (Bjønnes 1977, INA 1986).
The frequency of use and the carrying capacity of the environment are important
factors in landscape and playscape planning. There is little knowledge of the
carrying capacity of wild lands concerning children’s use (Hart 1982). This
perspective ought to be assessed when selecting and planning for natural
The Impact of the Environment on Children’s Motor Development
The intervention effect from playing in a complex environment was seen as
improvement in motor fitness in the experimental group more than in the
comparison group. Our research found significant differences between the
experimental group and comparison group were found in balance and
coordination abilities (Table 2, Figure 9). These abilities are components of all
basic movements and will be improved with diverse movement patterns. This
study’s findings suggest that playing in a complex physical environment, where
the landscape structures afforded diverse functions for play, caused this
intervention effect.
Neither group improved their flexibility in the sit and reach test. In fact,
flexibility decreased from pre- to post-test in for the six- and seven-year olds in
both groups (Fjørtoft 2000). This tendency is also found in other studies (Brodie
and Royce 1998), which have shown a decreasing level of flexibility (sit and
reach) in boys and girls from age six to ten years. This development pattern
could be explained by growth in body height which is a common feature in this
age group, followed by decreasing flexibility in knee and thigh joints (Gallhue
and Ozmun 1998). The present study showed a weak negative correlation with
height in the flexibility test (Fjørtoft 2000b).
The reliability of the EUROFIT Motor Fitness Test was found acceptable, but
factor analyses showed low correlations between the test items, which is in line
with past research. In terms of validity, the field measures of balance and
strength, tested by force platform tests for power and stability, showed low
correlations indicating that field tests are testing a complex movement
performance, while the instrumental tests are measuring more isolated abilities.
Landscape as Playscape
Dynamic systems theory emphasizes the importance of the environment in
learning processes (Thelen 1992, Vereijken 1997). The results from this study
confirm this theory. The interactive nature of motor learning was demonstrated
by the interaction of the self-organization of body systems, the tasks performed
and the environmental structures that afforded such performance (Vereijken et
al. 1992).
In this study, the natural environment of a woodland area proved to be a
suitable playground for children. Landscape ecology analysis confirmed a high
diversity of topography and vegetation in the area. The complexity of the
landscape afforded a variety of play activities. Particular forms of play were
linked to special landscape elements.
Play activities were categorized as functional play, symbol play and construction
play. Functional play, also defined as gross motor play, typically took place in
landscapes with mixed vegetation and a varied topography. Characterized by low
herb woodland with scattered shrub vegetation and smooth topography, these
areas afforded running and tumbling, climbing trees, and a variety of games
involving physical activity. Skiing was also categorized as functional play, as it is
a typical physical activity for Norwegian children in the wintertime. The habitat
typical for skiing was an open meadow with a varied topography, moderate in
slope and with low values of roughness.
Symbol play and construction play typically took place in habitats dominated by
scattered, mixed-bush vegetation that included trees as well as dense shrubs
with open patches. The topography was more broken in these habitats than in
the habitats for running activities. Climbing rocks and sliding were typical
activities on steeper slopes. The activity of climbing trees was dependent on the
available trees and whether they were properly branched for climbing and
accessible from the ground. Such trees were found in the habitats for symbol
and construction play.
Physical activity play in a natural environment improved all the motor abilities
tested, except for flexibility. When compared to the comparison group, there
were also significant differences in balance and coordination abilities as
measured by the flamingo balance test and the Indian skip coordination test.
These tests might have been too demanding for the children, as their coefficients
of variation were high. However, the literature shows that demanding movement
tasks stimulate learning more than stereotypic movements, and engage more
varied ability patterns. The conclusion was, therefore, that play in a natural
playscape had caused these effects and that more demanding tasks were
learned. Although not fully explored, this study points to the natural playscape
as an influential factor in children’s motor development.
Directions for Further Research
The value of the natural environment as a playground and learning arena for
children requires more research. First, more behavioral studies are needed, both
to expand upon the present study of motor development, as well as to
Landscape as Playscape
determine whether there are specific skills or abilities that are learned better in a
natural environment than in other environments. Secondly, learning from nature
should also be further examined in other fields, such as science and cognitive
learning, other health and fitness related aspects, and social relations. How
natural environments influence play behavior, gender relationships, self-esteem
and mastery of skills are some of many fields in child development research that
need further study. The natural environment is a valuable source for diverse
learning and diverse play habitats for children. Methods from landscape ecology
need to be further explored as a tool for physical planning and for selecting and
securing natural playscapes for children.
Ingunn Fjørtoft, MSc., Ph.D. is an Associate Professor at Telemark University
College, Faculty of Arts, Folk Culture and Teacher Education, Norway. Her field of
research includes physical activity and motor development in children, outdoor
environments and outdoor education. She teaches physical education, science
and outdoor classes at the University. She is a member of the National Board of
Physical Education and Health. Address: Telemark University College/ Faculty of
Arts, Folk Culture and Teacher Education/ 2670 Notodden/ Norway/
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... No instrumento PACOR, uma parte dos itens liga-se a dimensões do desenvolvimento infantil ZAJICEK;WALICZEK, 2014), como habilidades e capacidades das crianças que podem ser beneficiadas pelo uso de espaços abertos. Estudos têm tratado especificamente das atividades que estimulam a habilidade motora e a imaginação (FJØRTOFT, 2004;FJØRTOFT;SAGEIE, 2000;KUH;PONTE;CHAU, 2013;SCHAFFER;KISTEMAN, 2012), bem como oferecem oportunidades de socialização e busca de privacidade (ÄNGGARD, 2010;CZALCZYNSKA-PODOLSKA, 2014;KYLIN, 2003;MALONE;TRANTER, 2003). Devido às propriedades potencializadoras de desenvolvimento, os espaços abertos de uso recreativo têm sido investigados quanto às interações que as crianças estabelecem com os elementos naturais (FJØRTOFT, 2004;SARGISSON;MCLEAN, 2012;SCHAFFER;KISTEMAN, 2012) bem como as escolhas e preferências dos pais pelo uso desses espaços (SKAR; KROGH, 2009;GUNDERSEN et al., 2016;LARSON;WHITING;GREEN, 2013;VEITCH et al., 2006). ...
... No instrumento PACOR, uma parte dos itens liga-se a dimensões do desenvolvimento infantil ZAJICEK;WALICZEK, 2014), como habilidades e capacidades das crianças que podem ser beneficiadas pelo uso de espaços abertos. Estudos têm tratado especificamente das atividades que estimulam a habilidade motora e a imaginação (FJØRTOFT, 2004;FJØRTOFT;SAGEIE, 2000;KUH;PONTE;CHAU, 2013;SCHAFFER;KISTEMAN, 2012), bem como oferecem oportunidades de socialização e busca de privacidade (ÄNGGARD, 2010;CZALCZYNSKA-PODOLSKA, 2014;KYLIN, 2003;MALONE;TRANTER, 2003). Devido às propriedades potencializadoras de desenvolvimento, os espaços abertos de uso recreativo têm sido investigados quanto às interações que as crianças estabelecem com os elementos naturais (FJØRTOFT, 2004;SARGISSON;MCLEAN, 2012;SCHAFFER;KISTEMAN, 2012) bem como as escolhas e preferências dos pais pelo uso desses espaços (SKAR; KROGH, 2009;GUNDERSEN et al., 2016;LARSON;WHITING;GREEN, 2013;VEITCH et al., 2006). ...
... Estudos têm tratado especificamente das atividades que estimulam a habilidade motora e a imaginação (FJØRTOFT, 2004;FJØRTOFT;SAGEIE, 2000;KUH;PONTE;CHAU, 2013;SCHAFFER;KISTEMAN, 2012), bem como oferecem oportunidades de socialização e busca de privacidade (ÄNGGARD, 2010;CZALCZYNSKA-PODOLSKA, 2014;KYLIN, 2003;MALONE;TRANTER, 2003). Devido às propriedades potencializadoras de desenvolvimento, os espaços abertos de uso recreativo têm sido investigados quanto às interações que as crianças estabelecem com os elementos naturais (FJØRTOFT, 2004;SARGISSON;MCLEAN, 2012;SCHAFFER;KISTEMAN, 2012) bem como as escolhas e preferências dos pais pelo uso desses espaços (SKAR; KROGH, 2009;GUNDERSEN et al., 2016;LARSON;WHITING;GREEN, 2013;VEITCH et al., 2006). ...
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... Firstly, the use of screens and digital devices appears strategic to stimulate motor and recreational activities even in children of age 4 years (Fjørtoft, 2004), but only if it is a passive and hypostatic use. In this perspective, it is clear that Pelizzari, F., Marangi, M., Rivoltella, P. C., Peretti, G., Massaro, D., Villani, D. coding is an educational medium activity, able to mediate between physical and digital reality and to stimulate creativity to develop motor and logical skills (Couse and Chen, 2010;Tisseron, 2013). ...
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We propose the results of a research that combines the educational and psychological media approach, to verify the pedagogical potential of coding and robotics in the learning processes of 4-year-old children at the cognitive and socio-relational level. The study investigated the impact of unplugged and plugged coding on the skills of spatiality, movement and problem-solving skills, storage and decoding of progressively more complex indications, and single-group interaction of 51 children and three kindergartens using storytelling and the educational robot Cubetto. The work is based on the research carried out by Lee (2020) on the inclusion of coding in early childhood, the theoretical references of Wing (2010) about computational thinking and the theoretical frameworks proposed by Bers (2020) regarding coding as a playful dimension. The data collected through the quantitative and qualitative tools of a pre- and post-intervention questionnaire to educators and a checklist of observations on children recorded the following: • an increase in children’s space, motor and information-storage/decoding skills; • a change in children’s collaborative skills when comparing the results of the plugged and unplugged coding workshops and • the impact of coding to increase children’s performance skills through narrative dimension and play.
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In a forest kindergarten context, young children can get boost on their level of physical activity, motor skills, social skills, pro-environmental behaviors, etc. through structured and/or unstructured nature-based educational programs. Most studies mentioned teachers, parents, and researchers as facilitators in the early childhood outdoor learning programs, while landscape architects were rarely considered. However, beyond just being involved in the design and construction of the physical environment, landscape architects can play a more profound role in the long run. This study aims to show that involving landscape architects as facilitators in the nature-based educational programs can benefit the programs in many ways and the effect can be long-lasting. The study is based on the 16 years of collaboration between Miyanooka, a forest kindergarten, and a team of landscape architects from Takano Landscape Planning in Japan to conduct naturebased educational programs to preschoolers. It presents examples of programs in Miyano-oka and the strategies applied to develop them. In this project, landscape architects employed various design strategies to improve the existing programs and help develop new programs. Among those strategies, participatory design is the primary one. During both the renovation (from 2006 to 2008) and follow-up (from 2009 to now) phases, active participation and collaboration between designers and the educators help achieve the sustainable development of both the outdoor natural environment and educational programs.
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Forest school is a form of outdoor learning that takes children into regular and repeated learning experiences in natural settings. Being based on a comprehensive experience with nature, it is assumed to be benefcial for learning and to promote restorative efects on cognitive and emotional function in preschool children. This review aimed to examine the available evidence on the benefts of forest school compared to indoor school activities in children aged 3 to 6 years. We searched for studies on forest school for preschool children in PsycInfo, JSTOR, and Scopus, with no restriction on publication year. The risk of bias was assessed using Joanna Briggs’s criteria for quasi-experimental design. Of the 190 articles identifed, 16 studies were reviewed (N=1560). Higher benefts were found in children attending forest school compared to those attending indoor school in various areas of child development: cognitive function, motor coordination and balance, connectedness to nature, and health and well-being outcomes. There is, however, still a shortage of empirical evidence, and the methodological quality of most studies was limited. The literature on forest schools for preschool children in general supports positive efects in a wide range of variables that promote child health and development, but more evidence is needed to assess their efectiveness. Due to the methodological weaknesses of the reviewed studies, one should interpret their fndings with caution.
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Children engage in risky play even though there is a chance of failure and negative experiences. They climb a tree to feel joy, even though it is safer to stand still on the ground. The question is how taking risks can be good for experiences, development, and learning. This chapter discusses the potential benefits of engaging in risky play, focusing on the positive and thrilling experiences children may gain, on developing life mastery skills, and on physical and psychological developmental benefits, as well as how children through risk-taking in play get better at managing real-life risks.
The built environment impacts multiple components of child health and well-being through direct impacts on the child and through impacts on family interactions and processes. We analyze key components of the physical environments that children and significant others (caregivers, siblings, peers) occupy (e.g., home, parks, other recreation spaces, schools, work). In doing so, we examine what is known and what is not yet fully understood regarding the impacts of the built environment specifically, and the physical environment more broadly, on family interactions. These relations can be both direct, where the influence is on interactions directly involving the child, and indirect, where the physical environment has consequences for significant others which, in turn, affects their interactions with the child. We also examine indirect impacts on the target child through the disruption of family routines, rituals, and other forms of family interaction patterns. We conclude with a discussion of implications for future research and practice.KeywordsBuilt environmentPhysical environmentChild healthAdolescent healthChild well-beingAdolescent well-beingFamily processesFamily routinesRituals
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Modern agricultural techniques have drastically changed the swedish landscape since Second World War. Small biotopes have rapidily decreased. A method is presented to study the changes by aerial photo interpretation and computer cartography. Three periods are investigated; 1940th, 1965th and 1980th. The interpretations have been digitilazed and computer maps and statistics produced using the program MIDAS. Disappearing biotopes are meadows, pasture lands, wetlands, small ponds and islands of decidous trees in cultivated fields, , open ditches, stone walls hedges, road verges. In addition, the size of the cultivated fields and their borders has been studied. Some consequences for flora and fauna are discussed.
To understand the way children develop, Bronfenbrenner believes that it is necessary to observe their behavior in natural settings, while they are interacting with familiar adults over prolonged periods of time. His book offers an important blueprint for constructing a new and ecologically valid psychology of development.