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Perception of Nature Play in Children’s Gardens: A Survey of Decision Makers from North American Public Gardens

Children’s gardens have been an increasingly popular addition to North American public gardens in the last two decades. Unlike their counterparts established in healthcare facilities and early-education centers, children’s gardens in public gardens are less studied and understood. A substantial body of research has indicated the wide range of cognitive, physical, and social benefits of “nearby nature” and “nature play” associated with outdoor children’s spaces. In an era where children’s access to and time spent in the natural world continues to diminish, we must look beyond irregular visits to parks and gardens to focus on how immediate landscapes at home can serve as nature play experiences. With the missions of many public gardens focused on educating the public about the environment and encouraging visitors to make changes in their own yards, this study explores if these institutions can also inspire families to adopt nature play closer to home. The research examines the awareness and perception of nature play in public gardens through a survey of garden managers and staff. 119 children’s garden managers affiliated with the American Public Garden Association responded to a questionnaire (74% completion rate) for their views on educational goals, garden features, and implementation of nature play in children’s gardens they oversee. Nature play elements like water play, utilization of loose materials, and manipulation of sand and mud with a programmatic intent to promote “free play” were the most commonly cited aspects of these spaces. Although 71% of children garden managers indicated that they were very familiar with nature play concepts and an even greater number (80%) agreeing that spaces they manage accomplish nature play goals, few felt that their spaces and programming would encourage or inspire families to translate these concepts in home landscapes. While nature play is increasingly recognized and utilized in a variety of public settings, results highlight that many public gardens may be missing an opportunity to promote nature play at home as part of a wider effort to encourage environmental stewardship.

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