Nature Play 101: Definition, Benefits & Play Ideas

Nature Play 101: Definition, Benefits & Play Ideas

girl playing in nature

Nature play is a form of play-based learning that falls under the big umbrella of sensory play. In this guide, we look at the key aspects of nature play and how to quickly get started.

Definition of Nature Play

Nature play occurs when children are provided with the opportunity to engage in unstructured play in an outdoor setting where natural elements feature.

Natural elements may include setups such as:

  • Gardens where children can grow their own plants
  • Sandpits for sensory, symbolic and physical play
  • Digging patches where children can use garden equipment
  • Small pits of pebbles, gravel, course sand and smooth river rocks for fine motor and imaginative play; and
  • Water play areas for sensory play
  • Trees which provide shade etc.

The key is that children are able to touch and interact with the environment in their play – not just that they can see the outdoors, trees and plants.

Nature play may sometimes also include unstructured play outdoors such as riding a bike, climbing a tree, gardening, bushwalking and swimming at the beach.

boy playing outdoor with dirt at sunset
Photo by Helena Lopes from Pexels

Why is Nature Play Important in Early Childhood & Benefits of Nature Play

Research findings support the view that nature play is essential to the health and wellbeing of children. It enhances children’s cognitive functions and creativity, boosts self-esteem and improves resilience.

It is unsurprising therefore that many pioneers of early childhood theories have weighed in on the importance and benefits of nature play. The most commonly cited benefits, include:

  • Active Adults – Children who habitually engage in nature play during childhood are more likely to lead active lifestyles as adults; a good protective factor against a sedentary lifestyle and obesity in later life.
  • Creativity, Concentration and Inter-gender Play – Children who play amongst trees, fields, shrubs and vegetated edges show more creative play, better concentration and more inter-gender play than peers who play within equipment-focused playgrounds.
  • Mitigates against Attention-deficit Hyperactivity – Outdoor play within greenery is shown to reduce symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children.
  • Health Benefits – Nature play may strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of myopia (short-sightedness).
  • Social Skills- Supports learning cooperative skills with others.
  • Development of Life-Long Conservation Values – Frequent, unstructured childhood play in natural settings often leads to ‘natural activism’ and environmental stewardship later on in life.

Nature Play: How to Start

The Environment to be Developmentally Appropriate

When starting out with Nature Play, consider a truly developmentally appropriate environment that is catered for your child. For example, infants may start out by simply being with their parent out in nature.

A toddler might take steps in independent exploration (starting hands-on fruit and vegetable gardening), whereas preschoolers may engage in natural construction such as digging, measuring and experimenting with materials.

Naturalise your Home; Proximity = Frequency of Nature Play

Nature play does not have to be elaborate, and it is not about the size of the space as much as the freedom with which your child can occupy the space (make sure it is suitable in terms of safety and supervision).

You may wish to naturalise the current space you have, whether it be a backyard or a corner of the house.

The closer you are to the space, the more likely your child is to engage in Nature Play. Start by taking inventory of what you already have and consider how you can re-imagine and re-purpose it for nature play.

For example, unused pots can be turned into a colourful, edible container garden. It’s an incremental process which may take some time and effort, but reaps its benefit in abundance.

Browse through the list of Nature Play ideas below (and accompanying free resource guides which follow), decide which ideas are a good fit for your family, child and space, research any further resources and inspiration needed to finalise details of what you have chosen, and then give it a go!

Related reading: What Is Loose Parts Play & How To Get Started

Nature Play Ideas

Nature Play Activities

  • Nature Loose Parts Play – Gather loose parts from nature, check for splinters/sharp edges, and let your child manipulate, play and create.
  • Archeologist for a day – Bury hidden treasures in the sandpit, and let your child archeologist dig them up, sketch and record them.
  • Fairy Villages – Find an enchanted place for your fairy village, provide small natural loose parts that contribute to the construction of a miniature fairy world, leave notes to fairies and see if they respond, link to your children’s favourite fairy stories.
  • 5 Senses – Go for a bush walk, and ask your child to describe the experience using their 5 senses.
  • Fruit and vegetable gardening.

Nature Ideas for Art

  • Pressed Flowers
  • Rubbings
  • Nature Collage
  • Daisy chain jewellery
  • Decorate a pet rock

Free Resources for Nature Play

If you’d like more guidance, ideas and information about incorporting Nature Play to your child’s daily rhythms, here are some of our our favourite resources.

Butterfly Heroes and NC State Design Natural Learning Initiative

Nature Play at Home: A Guide for Boosting Your Children’s Healthy Development and Creativity.

Eco Explorers

20 Nature Play Ideas & Activities in Your Backyard.

Nature Play WA

Fun Outdoor Activities for Kids (grouped by season)

The Imagination Tree

60 Nature Play Ideas for Kids (grouped by resources eg mud, sticks, stones)

Every family has the opportunity to invite nature into their lives, and to model to their children how to do the same. Playing in nature brings with it so many good things, including health, wellness, creativity and a love for our planet.

We hope this guide has given you some guidance as to how to start with Nature Play. We wish your child a magical, unencumbered childhood with lots of opportunities to interact with the natural world, and to enjoy all it has to offer.

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