Date of Award


Document Type

Campus Access Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

First Advisor

Sontigan Zeng

Second Advisor

Serra Acar

Third Advisor

Russell Schutt


Nature play is an important part of children’s lives. Learning that happens during nature play can be deep and complex, and result in meaningful experiences, beneficial skill development, and stress relief across the lifespan (Clements, 2004). Despite the benefits, recent research suggests nature play is declining in both quantity and quality (Charles & Louv, 2009; Wolch et al., 2014). Recently, young children and families have experienced important changes caused by the COVID-19 crisis. In this “new normal” phase, schools, childcare programs, libraries, and playgrounds have been ordered to close or operate under various restrictions. Some caregivers are being expected to work from home, while simultaneously caring for their young children (Alon et al., 2020; Cluver et al., 2020; Coyne et al, 2020). To date, limited study is available to understand how children and caregivers adapt their play practices around nature play during the pandemic.

This research employed a sequential mixed-method design, utilizing 173 surveys and 10 telephone interviews with a non-representative convenience sample to explore changes in: (a) preschool children’s nature play practices, and (b) changes in caregiver perspectives as they relate to nature play before and during the COVID-19 crisis. Results revealed changes in the amount of time for nature play, changes in with whom children play in nature, changes in the settings for nature play, and changes in child care arrangements for most children. Additional findings suggest the functions of nature play have changed for some children. There were also changes found in caregiver perceptions about nature play.

Additional findings reveal that the impact of barriers to nature play has changed for most caregivers. Meanwhile, the overall importance of nature play, and the importance of specific benefits have changed for some caregivers. Finally, some caregivers feel their children engage in enough nature play, while others do not- and with that come caregiver feelings of guilt.

Findings of this study will allow relevant stakeholders to be more informed as they make decisions about playtime and play space provisions for young children. Knowledge about the ways children actually play in nature should inform policies and nature-play initiatives both during times of “business as usual” and during times of crisis.


Free and open access to this Campus Access Dissertation is made available to the UMass Boston community by ScholarWorks at UMass Boston. Those not on campus and those without a UMass Boston campus username and password may gain access to this dissertation through resources like Proquest Dissertations & Theses Global or through Interlibrary Loan. If you have a UMass Boston campus username and password and would like to download this work from off-campus, click on the "Off-Campus UMass Boston Users" link above.