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insights: zoos & aquariums

wild child Disney is supporting a ground-breaking AZA initiative to encourage outdoor family time. Aimee Johns tells us why natural play promotes well being and deeper animal conservation values



n today’s world, children often grow up without the opportunity to experience the wonders of nature. They lack the type of outdoor time that includes imaginative play, exposure to plants and animals – and physical activity. Children’s lives have also changed due to the lack of greenspace and the added distractions of technology. But the importance of playing outdoors has not been forgotten. Parents, experts and educators are now striving to embrace a return to “nature play”.

TWEAKING SCHOOL SCIENCE So what is nature play and why is it important? Nature play is playing with nature in nature – unstructured play in green spaces like local parks, zoos, aquariums or even your own backyard. Nature play isn’t planned out or led by adults. It’s open-ended exploration time for children that can also allow families to play and explore together, instead of adults focusing on supervising children. Research continues to build and support the benefits of nature play – so strongly that unstructured nature play is considered by some to be fundamental to youth. It may be as important to children as good nutrition and quality sleep. 98

Aimee Johns champions daily nature play Play is an essential everyday part of a child’s life, but not all types of play are equal. Indoor versus outdoor directly affects the quality of play and child development. Increased levels of physical activity when engaged in nature play can lead to improved health. This, in turn, enhances memory and cognitive function, influencing the ability to learn. Collectively, research shows that children’s physical, social, academic and physiological health is positively impacted from daily experiences of true nature play.


This focus on nature play has found a perfect home in zoos and aquariums. This is why Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)-accredited facilities across the USA are actively engaging in nature play by building more natural play spaces. They are also incorporating nature play into education programmes and leading Family Nature Clubs in their local communities. In 2014, AZA launched Nature Play Begins at Your Zoo & Aquarium to spearhead innovative ways for accredited facilities to establish or enhance familycentered nature play experiences in their local communities. This initiative is supported by the Disney Conservation Fund with financial, logistical and creative support because it “increases the time children and families spend in nature”. The AZA initiative has created online resources such as eGuides, webinars and a toolkit so families and informal educators can learn more about supporting nature play in a zoo or aquarium, and beyond. It has also built key partnerships between AZA and other non-profit organisations working to connect children and families to nature, including the Children & Nature Network

Attractions Handbook 2017-2018  

The global resource for attractions professionals

Attractions Handbook 2017-2018  

The global resource for attractions professionals