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Nature by design: Playscape affordances support the use of executive function in preschoolers


The affordances of natural play spaces can support the development of executive function skills in preschool children

Four scholars in the fields of educational psychology, early childhood education, and developmental and learning sciences investigated how the structure of a playscape and the affordances within impacted the interactions and actions of children’s play, particularly as they addressed expression of executive function (EF) skills. Playscapes are intentionally designed to provide vegetation-rich play environments that promote young children’s active engagement with and affinity for nature. Affordances are action possibilities which, in a playspace, encourage children to take risks, explore and investigate while engaging in various forms of active play. EF generally refers to goal-directed behavior and self-regulatory skills. The specific aim of this study was to investigate how the affordances of two different playscapes could provide opportunities for strengthening children’s EF skills.

Sixty-five children (age 3-5) from two different and diverse programs participated in this study — one an urban university laboratory preschool which serves children funded through Head Start or tuition fees; the other a non-profit program serving low-income children and families at different sites across suburban and rural settings. Data was based on videotaped vignettes of children at play in two different playscapes: one on the University of Cincinnati campus; the other at the Cincinnati Nature Center. The videotaping focused on play episodes resembling inquiry, exploration, or imaginative play. Researchers selected vignettes from the video recordings depicting children engaged in goal-directed problem-solving play activities. These vignettes were then analyzed in relation to specific EF-related behaviors.

The vignettes provided examples of children setting their own goals, solving problems, focusing attention, and demonstrating cognitive flexibility. There were also examples of children showing inhibitory control, initiation, flexibility, working memory, planning and organization, and monitoring. The affordances within the playscape (such as logs and tree cookies) promoted the exercise of EF skills. There were no explicit examples of emotional regulation; however, children in two of the three vignettes seemed to experience happiness and/or satisfaction after engaging in successful problem-solving. Additionally, there were no examples of children demonstrating outbursts or high levels of frustration. These observations suggest some level of emotional regulation.

This research indicates that “playscapes can be executive function-enhancing environments.” While further research is needed to substantiate these findings, this study provides enough evidence to support the provision of playscapes as a way of promoting young children’s executive function skills.


Carr, V., Brown, R.D., Schlembach, S., Kochanowski, L., (2017). Nature by design: Playscape affordances support the use of executive function in preschoolers. Children, Youth and Environments, 27(2), 25-46.


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