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.
If you seek fun early childhood nature play ideas, you’re in the right place. This guide will discuss the benefits of nature play and provide ideas and resources for parents to encourage their children to get outside.
But first, why is nature play so important?
Nature play benefits and importance
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.
Nature play provides children with ample opportunities to discover and classify different colours, textures, smells, temperatures and other different aspects of nature.
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.
33 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 thirty-three 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.
- Learn about the outdoor spaces where your children play, the history and deep respect for nature by First Nations peoples. You can start by making contact with your local Indigenous communities or by visiting AIATSIS online where you can explore and connect with the oldest surviving culture in the world.
Nature play for babies
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.
More nature play resources and ideas
Here are some excellent nature play resources with more fun ideas to prompt your child out into nature:
- The Nature Play QLD, Nature Play WA and Nature Play Canberra websites have loads of information, activities and ideas for playtime in nature.
- The Australian Government’s National Parks website also has some great tips and activities for nature play.
- The State Government of Victoria has a Nature Play website with resources, activities and ideas for nature play. They also celebrate Nature Play Week in April.
- Outdoor Classroom Day is an annual global event that celebrates and promotes the importance of outdoor play and learning.
- Project Wild Thing on leading children back to nature:
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?
Get your child into nature play with Petit Early Learning Journey
At Petit ELJ we believe children are driven by a natural desire and curiosity to explore the world around them. Nature play and outdoor play environments promote a happy, creative and healthy childhood.
Our families and Early Childhood Educators frequently collect materials from nature for both indoor and outdoor experiences. Our services provide natural outdoor experiences and excursions.
Learn how Petit ELJ can support your child’s curiosity about the wonders of nature.