Nature play is a simple, fun and extraordinary life experience for children. Do you recall the days when you would freely explore the outdoors? For many children, nothing is more enjoyable than getting messy and playing in nature.
However, our urban neighbourhoods have become incredibly built up over the years, with nature strips and backyards dwindling. Coupled with the advent of our technological era, the time children spend outdoors has declined.
More recently, there has been a new movement, especially from families and Early Childhood Educators to return children’s playtime to the wild. And that is where nature play — the opportunity for children to immerse in unstructured, child-centred outdoor play in nature — has re-emerged.
What is nature play?
Nature play is a philosophy that encourages children to engage with nature on their own terms. It's about engaging in free play and unstructured exploration, rather than following a set of pre-determined rules or goals.
Nature play can happen anywhere: in parks, backyards and gardens; on beaches or riversides; even at home if you have a garden or balcony! The idea behind nature play is that it's something we can do anywhere--with no special equipment needed (although some people do like having toys). In fact there are lots of ways for kids to get out into the great outdoors without spending any money at all!
You can get kids started with nature play by encouraging them to go outside and explore. It could be as simple as letting them run around in the backyard or going for a walk on the beach with them; they'll soon start to see the world differently.
Why should we encourage nature play?
There are many reasons to encourage nature play. Getting children to play outdoors promotes every aspect of children’s development. It encourages physical and mental health and wellbeing, social and emotional development, builds resilience, creativity and promotes a strong connection with nature.
The benefits of nature play for children such as the freedom to learn, explore and interact with the natural environment continue into adulthood and have lasting effects on our mental health.
Nature play benefits children’s:
- Imagination, creativity and problem-solving skills.
- Physical activity levels by helping children to improve coordination, balance and gross motor skills.
- Understanding and appreciation of the natural environment.
- Gross and fine motor skills as they move and interact with the different outdoor natural resources.
- Sense of independence, self-reliance and confidence in children.
- Risk-taking in a safe environment. Richard Louv in his book, Last child in the woods: Saving our children from nature-deficit disorder discusses the growing body of research that supports more direct exposure to nature.
Children learn best from hands-on experiences that let them explore new things on their own terms--and nature offers all kinds of opportunities for this kind of learning! From exploring a creek bed with rocks or sticks in hand (or both), to climbing trees and making nests out of leaves and twigs--there's no shortage of ways children can gain knowledge about the world around them through nature play alone!
Now that we know some of the reasons nature play is so important, let’s look at some fun ideas to get your children outside.
Nature play ideas for children and families.
There are so many fun experiences for children in nature.
While nature play promotes unstructured outdoor play with no rules or formal objectives, it is also the perfect play environment to teach children the skills and abilities to be made aware of and mitigate risks. For example, children may learn how to identify and avoid touching an itchy grub in the garden.
Here are some excellent nature play ideas for parents with young children:
- Get involved in community gardening projects.
- Go on a nature scavenger hunt. Use materials from nature such as seed pods, rocks and leaves to make interesting patterns and art and craft projects
- Enjoy messy play in a muddy puddle.
- Make mud pies and mud castles.
- Go rock climbing.
- Go for a bushwalk.
- Explore a creek or river.
- Go camping in the country or at a beach.
- Have a picnic in the park.
- Go stargazing.
- Explore tidal pools together.
- Build sandcastles and forts at the beach.
- Climb trees.
- Discover your child’s favourite flowers.
- Build a fort out of sticks and leaves.
- Make potions using leaves and flower petals.
- Paint with mud.
- Play in the rain.
- Discover animal tracks on the beach.
- Collect different coloured leaves.
- Discover the amazing world of wild animals, including bugs, slugs and butterflies.
- Make music using natural instruments like shells, leaves and sticks.
- Wear sunscreen and a hat while enjoying the feel of sunlight.
- Make a natural mandala.
- Have an outdoor playdate and let your children’s imaginations run wild.
- Hug a tree as the sun rises.
- Listen to the sounds of birds and learn your child’s favourite song.
- Discover the sounds of animals and wildlife at local wetlands.
- Collect samples of different sands from the scrub, dunes, beaches and deserts.
- Discover what it is like to go fossicking.
- Take the scooter or choose a bike ride around a park. Feel the air currents swirling around you.
- Cool off in the wonders of nature such as under a waterfall or in a billabong, the Wiradjuri word for “lake”.
- Visit a rainforest to deepen your family’s connection to nature. What animals do you observe? How old are the trees?
There are endless possibilities for nature play and fun outdoor experiences. And while our outdoor play ideas may give nature play a little structure, the key is to explore the opportunities outside and have fun!
Nature play spaces.
We’re not all fortunate to have easy access to nature spaces or backyards where children can have the freedom to run outside to play. But there are still plenty of other ways to appreciate the beauty of nature. Here are some nature play ideas:
- Visit your local park or nature reserve.
- Attend a local farm stay or visit a working farm.
- Explore bushland or gullies near where you live.
- Go camping in the country or at a beach.
- Check out your local botanic gardens or arboretum.
- Head to the beach for a day of sand and sea.
- Explore the desert for an extended family holiday.
- Investigate local rocks and caves.
- Create new weekend or holiday rituals with nature play ideas in repeated places. Nature play spaces are natural environments where children spontaneously create fun and fond childhood memories.
You don’t have to wait for your children to turn into toddlers to reap the benefits of outdoor play. There are many ways to introduce your baby into nature play including tummy time in the park.
Even when you don’t have a lot of outdoor space at home, you could try these nature play experiences for babies:
- Make up an experience tub filled with nature’s treasures. For example, you could use clean mud to hide shells, leaves, stones, twigs and large seeds and create a sensory experience.
- Take your baby for a walk in the park and point out all the different colours, shapes and textures you see. Don’t forget to look up at the sky and clouds.
- Make music together using natural instruments like shells, leaves and sticks.
- Play peek-a-boo using a large leaf or tree branch.
- Let your baby explore sensory experiences with different textures by touching natural items such as bark, sand, rocks and leaves.
- Dance in the rain with your child.
With so many benefits, it's no surprise that nature play is quickly becoming a popular activity among parents looking for ways to get their children outside more often!
So, ditch the digital and take the children for a nature experience. Get outside and start exploring with your children today! Nature play is the perfect way to get active. Do you have any favourite nature play ideas or resources?