Reach Outdoors: What is "Nature Play"? Pt. 2

by Shaun McKeon, MUCC Education Director
In the last REACH blog we talked about the idea of nature play and allowing children to explore the environment on their own.  This week we are going to present some ideas to help kick start the imagination of the kids.
The key component of nature play is that there shouldn’t be too many guidelines or rules. According to one leading national organization, “At it’s very best, nature play isn’t scheduled, planned or led by adults, nor is it confined to grown-ups’ rules. Instead, it’s open ended, free time exploration and recreation, without close adult supervision. For many of us this sort of play defined our childhoods”. (Finch)
Allowing the kids to just go into a natural area and explore is what nature play is all about. Imagination, exploration, discovery, and creativity are some of the foundational ideas that the children will be taking part in while they are participating in nature play.
Nature play can take place anywhere.  It doesn’t have to be an area that has been designated specifically for nature play as long as the kids are outdoors.  The area should have natural features using only materials that are found in nature.  In a nature play area everything is designed to be used as a tool of play.  Puddles are meant to be splashed in, mud is there to jump in, trees are there for climbing, and pinecones may even be there for throwing or building.
Nature play areas should be a safe environment where kids can be themselves and have fun in the outdoors. There may be some inherent risks present but these are good teachable moments for kids to push their boundaries and discover new things.  Something like climbing a tree may be a little risky, but taking chances is an important aspect of life! Encouraging your children to play and explore is an important part of their development.
The following is a list of starter ideas on how to stimulate play in the nature play area.  Most likely your child’s natural instincts will take over and they will decide to play however they want and that is the point.  If they need a little prodding try suggesting some of these ideas:
  1. Fairy Houses- Fairy Houses are small structures for fairies, woodland nymphs, and nature’s friends to visit. Sticks, bark, dry grasses, pebbles, feathers, pine cones and acorns can all be used to create these small structures.  These little houses are great ways for kids to express their imagination and also can provide refuge for small animals like toads.
  2. Giants-An imaginative game where children create small cities and pretend they are giants living among its citizens.  This game can also be combined with the story of Jack and the Beanstalk when you get home. They can draw and create villages in the dirt using sticks and other natural building supplies.  They can even crush the villages while pretending like they are actual giants.
  3. Portal into another world- Using your child’s imagination is a big part of nature play.  To get them excited about the nature play area you can introduce them to the portal concept.  The portal concept is the idea that once they enter the nature play area they are transported into another world.  They have gone through a portal and now they can be anywhere their imagination takes them.  They could be trying to survive in the amazon, they could be pretending to be the last people on the planet and have to survive, or they could be out on a camping
  4. Camouflage-This game is similar to hide and go seek, but it can be played in a more contained area. One person is selected to be it.  The “it” person closes their eyes and counts to 20.  While they are counting the other players run and hide.  They want to be hidden so they cannot be seen by the “it” person, but hiding players must still be able to see the “it” person. Once the “it” person opens their eyes they must try and find the hiding players.  However the “it” person must stay in one spot and cannot move to go find the hidden players.
  5. Insect hunting- Many different types of insects call the play area home and bug collecting is a good way to learn inquiry and observation skills.  Catching crickets, rollie pollies, and other insects can be a fun way to get up close and personal with nature.
  6. Log Hopping- A favorite activity for kids has always been hopping from one log to another and trying to keep balance.
  7. Water- Kids love to play and splash in the water and they can also discover frogs, or insects living in the water.
  8. Making boats out of bark and sticks and playing- Using the natural materials that are found in the play area children can make boats, planes, or cars and use them as part of their play activities.
  9. Mud pit- Kids love getting dirty and playing in the mud; from mud pies to splashing in it mud puddles are a classic outdoor activity for younger kids
  10. Building forts out of sticks and branches
The nature play area is a great way for kids to go outdoors and have fun.  They don’t need to worry about staying clean or getting lost.  They can just play and have fun and be in nature.” Other youth leadership creators mentioned the area was a good way to get kids outside, an awesome place to have fun, a place to hang out with your friends, and an excellent place to learn to show respect for nature.
It is important for adults to keep in mind not to structure the play too much for the kids and to allow them to explore on their own.  However, safety should always be paramount and inspecting the area for any hazards is a good idea.  After that, be careful! Feel free to let your children enjoy and engage in nature how they see fit.
 Finch, K. (2008). A Parents’ Guide to Nature Play

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