Powering Up Our Young Brains with Play

Research in the field of neuroscience relating to development in children aged 0-12 years old reveals the positive impact of nature play and brain development. It highlights the associated benefit of interacting with open-ended provocations in a natural non-specific environment. A series of branches or wooden uprights with protrusions which connect with a suspended platform could be any number of things for different children as they imagine themselves in a scenario of their own choice, establish their own rules of engagement and solve the various problems they personally wish to interrogate. 

Nature Play is also valued for its benefit of progressing self-regulation as it increases levels of the “happy hormone” (dopamine) in the brain and counters the impact of heightened levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Play powers up our brains as it gets them into a relaxed state of neuroplasticity, ready for learning, and maps neurological pathways to benefit creativity and problem solving. Encouraging and facilitating this process is part of our commitment to developing the all-important skills of deep thinking, collaboration and inquiry that will futureproof our students and set them up for success.

To this end, our first mini nature playground has been created for our Primary School. It aims to afford our students the opportunity to investigate ideas creatively and critically, solve challenges in parallel play and reset or recalibrate students to a healthy baseline, both purposefully and incidentally. Consequently, wellbeing improves in children who have a vivid imagination and a tried and tested repertoire of problem-solving strategies that remains active due to repeated trialling in a safe space.     

This new environment is an even better option to the Social Hub option in a psychologist’s room, as children interact with other peers, building social skills and engaging with physical activity to regulate their otherwise dysregulated behaviour. I think all readers will agree that trying to argue with someone is extremely difficult whilst climbing a mountain!  

This outdoor classroom is highly effective and is reminiscent of days gone by when children rode their bikes, played in bushlands and climbed trees more freely. Cultural shifts and digital distractions have had an impact on the amount of outdoor play experienced by children, which is known to have a positive impact on school readiness and resilience, children’s healthy adjustment, and the development of important executive functioning skills. Play is intrinsically motivated and leads to active engagement and joyful discovery.‍ Our new nature playground will go a long way to increasing our students’ opportunity for imaginative play, movement, agility and strength-building. Judging from the interest and excitement it has generated amongst students already, their developing brains are obviously calling out for some nature play.  

The College provides three key areas when offering daily learning opportunities for our students in addition to the Physical Education and Arts/Co-Curricular Program. These are: 

  1. An academic program informed by data that identifies the skills and abilities of students and guides the teacher to differentiate. The current blended learning platform ensures technology is put to best use to differentiate and amplify personalised learning, whilst a pursuit of deeper learning by asking questions and applying frameworks for thinking is motivated through the inquiry skill build program.  
  2. A combination of socio-emotional learning included in our Friendology program, student growth coaching and positive psychology strength-based coaching programs, which educate students to understand their personal profile in terms of their strengths and challenges as well as the narratives that are available to understand their social world and the options they can access to solve problems they encounter. 
  3. The third key area of learning is that of play and is an area of learning that most students refer to as their best time during the school day. It is during this time of play that students test out their academic and socio-emotional learning. This seemingly informal learning opportunity is actually purposeful and intentional and provides the opportunity to improve sensory integration and address motor, cognitive, social, and linguistic domains.‍ Viewed in this light, school “playtime” becomes an essential part of a child’s day and has been linked with greater academic success among the children as they mature.‍  

This playground is a key aspect of the Primary School vision, as it addresses student wellbeing and also cultivates student agency. It was designed in collaboration with our Year 2 students, who have been investigating the properties of materials through their Science Unit of inquiry, leading to reimagining this area of our playground. To bring authenticity to the students’ learning, the teaching team partnered with the services of design studio, Cave Urban. In partnership with the Year 2 students, Cave Urban’s designers explored how we could reimagine the playground. The design architects committed to base their actual design on the students’ own creativity, extracting key ideas from the designs and models they submitted. The students knew that the final structure would be built on-site and were required to consider weight, shape and texture in their models. 

Cave Urban interacted with students and educators in a number of motivational briefings, inquiry workshops and maker space building opportunities. Student voice was ever-present and it brought tears of joy to those who witnessed the students as they convinced adults of the purpose, function and form associated with their structures and material selection.  

The architects reviewed the students’ designs and models and extracted key ideas that were present across the cohort. They completed the design with working drawings and shared the outcome with the students who were beyond excited that they had actually impacted their world. A Gallup Poll study revealed how frequently students lost their sense of hope, personal agency and motivation as they progressed through school. Clearly, this worked in opposition to this negative force and ripples of powerful celebration could be felt throughout the Primary School.  

Cave Urban went to work and sourced natural recycled materials that would service the dreams and needs of our students and as we returned to school for Term 4, our inviting Nature Playground with its Signature Treehouse was an exciting and welcoming sight for students as they circled through King David Drive.  

Term 4 is set to be a great term, and I can’t wait to play with the most important people in the world.  


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Lynda Fisher is the Head of Primary School at Moriah College in Queens Park, NSW.


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