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Nature playscapes as contexts for fostering self-determination


Nature playscapes encourage creativity, problem-solving and self-determination

The major purpose of this study was to examine how child-directed play within a deliberately designed natural playscape fosters the development of self-determination and its associated attributes within young children.  The study observed 65 pre-school children ranging in ages from three to five years from two separate Head-start and tuition-based programs near Cincinnati, Ohio.

The authors employed a qualitative, grounded theory approach to data analysis informed by the Foundations for Self-Determination Model (Palmer et al. 2012).  Part of a larger study that included curriculum assessment, behavior mapping and teacher focus groups along with audio/visual observation and analysis, this particular study employed only the data collected from the collection and analysis of the observational videos.  Each school participated in three one-hour play sessions for a total of six hours of observation.

The extensive use of loose parts observed within this study provides an endless source of creative play and, given their abundance within the playscape, allows for multiple children to participate in collaborative play.  This promotes pro-social interaction and relationship building as each child is able to participate, but can decide independently what his or her “loose part” represents (e.g., a stick transforms into food, hammer, or other tool).  The manipulation of larger objects such as branches or tree stumps (still considered “loose parts”) requires teamwork and collective problem solving.  As the children decide collectively how to move the log or navigate the tree stump, their independent mobility and decision-making contributes to their sense of empowerment and ability to engage with challenging settings.

While this article focuses primarily on the role a naturalized playscape takes in the development of a child’s self-determination, the concept of self-determination is associated with other important developmental outcomes including a child’s sense of confidence and positive self-esteem.  The authors elaborate on this point as they conclude that intentionally-designed nature play grounds “encourage choice-making, problem-solving, self-regulation and engagement” (p.163).



Kochanowski, L., Carr, V., (2014). Nature playscapes as contexts for fostering self-determination. Children, Youth and Environments, 24(2), 146-167.


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