We’ve heard about the importance of learning through play and how it helps a child social and emotional wellbeing, along with actually teaching them important learning principals. In one of our previous blog posts, we’ve detailed some ways you can set up your home to make it play friendly and given suggestions on where to start when encouraging your children to have a good proper play. One of our favourite environments for child’s play is in nature. Nature its self is a brilliant teacher, an ever-changing environment full of stimulation and learning opportunities. If you live in a city or in a suburban block it can be hard to think about ways to incorporate nature into your child’s routine and also if they have not grown up being outdoors it may be more of a difficult transition to getting them to a place where they feel comfortable with their feet in the dirt, but it really is worth it. Let’s dive in a bit deeper into nature play and how you can implement it into your child’s life and a way to help them learn and grow.
What is Nature Play?
First up let’s talk about what exactly is nature play? Is it simply taking your kids to a park that is outdoors every few days? Nature play is a little more conscious than that, it is the concept of having children play in a more natural environment where they come into contact with mud, sand, dirt, water, and trees to name a few things and incorporate these natural materials into their play. Whether it’s making sand castles and mud pies and decorating them with shells or twigs and gum nuts or using larger sticks to make a temporary cubby house, when children are playing in nature they are learning to be creative and use things from the environment around them. The aim of nature play is to get them more in tune with nature, giving them an appreciation for the beauty around them and also letting them use their imagination and creativity.
Benefits of Nature Play
Nature play has many great benefits, for starters being in natural settings more often can actually help kids develop a stronger immune system by coming into contacts with dirt, sand, mud, bark and even worms! Being out in nature has been proven to have a wonderfully soothing effect on children. You’ve felt it yourself! After a busy week if you go out for a bush walk or take off your shoes and sink your bare feet into the sand you feel a calming and soothing sensation. Imagine how wonderful this can be for kids, giving their eyes a rest from screens, bright lights, and their ears a rest from hustle and bustle and not to mention a calming of their heart. Getting your kids out into nature will help promote physical activity and keeping them active by giving them a wider expanse and bigger spaces to explore, they can really stretch their body as well as their minds.
Playing in nature can also help children with risk assessment, testing boundaries and discovery for themselves what is safe or unsafe which can help them build confidence within themselves and help them later in life with decision making and self-confidence.
Nature provides irregular spaces that can push children’s boundaries and even walking on uneven surfaces helps them to develop better coordination and special awareness which studies have shown children of today are severely lacking.
And of course, there is the amazing benefit of inspiring creativity. With an ever-changing landscape, children are always challenged to create new games or new structures. Even the same beach will change throughout the year, the way the water moves, build up of sand or seaweed provides a continuous change of natural play ‘equipment’ or ‘toys’ one may say.
How to make time for Nature Play
If you are home educating your kids then you are in charge of their schedule and this can make things a fair bit easier. Consider in your weekly timetable making a big space a few times a week for your children to go out into nature with a mixture of structured or unstructured play. Your living situation will often determine how often you are able to be with your children in the great outdoors. If you already live rurally then this is easy and your children may already have nature play as a natural go to. But if you are inner city or suburban living this can prove a little more difficult. It is still worth making the effort to get away a few times a week, most cities will have at least one large city gardens or parks with tree space and now with a lot of people getting more in tune with what our children need are building incredible nature playgrounds in city areas to make nature just that much more accessible to kids, but more about that later!
If your children are still at school then you will have to schedule in their nature play around that. Don’t just save it for the weekends, which can lead to great family adventures but be aware of making it more a part of routine life than just special occasions. Even adding in simple things like riding around the lake before after school with your kids and allowing enough time to stop and sit by the water and take in their surroundings can help kids keep their calm during the week. If your children are having a particularly stressful week or even day you’ll notice that by taking them into a natural space and having their only stimulation be in the natural things around them, they will be able to calm their body and mind and keep stress levels down also. This also works amazingly for parents. Take a blanket and a book and let yourself relax while the kids play next to you and let the clean air and soothing nature sounds do their work on you! You may need to start our by making nature play a ridged part of your schedule but once it starts to become a habit you’ll notice that the urge to get out for both you and the kids will become second nature.
Unstructured Nature Play
Unstructed nature play is taking children to a natural environment and having them invent their own games and use their creative minds to put use to the natural materials they find around them. Because every child is different you will find such a variety of what children choose to create the games they like to play when they are out in a natural place. Some kids may spend their first half hour just running! Stretching their bodies and climbing trees, they’ll invent physical games like tag and obstacle courses and revel in having a large and ever-changing landscape to move their bodies in. For some kids it will be more about building, finding fallen branches to put together and make shelters, or making their own trails or bridges across streams. Other children will like collecting bugs and insects and be fascinated by sap and bark while the more art-inclined kids will magically turn leaves and nuts into little characters or make tiny fairy houses with moss and twigs. So as you can see the range of what children will do if left uninterrupted in nature is huge.
If children are able to be out in nature together you’ll often see it becomes a lesson on team building and strengthen relationships, working together on a common goal or game, helping a smaller kid reach a higher branch, and bouncing ideas off one another to create a bigger and better game of building. It is important that kids get to have just kid n kid time, without interference from adults to really let themselves grow their own ideas and create a world and also learn to problem solve amongst themselves. If an adult is always stepping in the minute they see a potential argument or hazard (of course step in for dangerous hazards) then the children will never learn to solve these issues on their own and also will miss out on the experience of learning from their mistakes and important communication skills and become reliant on adults to solve all of their problems. Being in nature gives kids an often foreign environment where they need to really figure things out for themselves, so let them stretch their legs and minds and watch from a safe distance only interfering if things get quite out of hand or a potential danger arises.
These were created under the guise of being ‘safe’ for children after so many parents grew fearful of their child even scratching themselves, but they have evolved into an unimaginative space where even though children are outside they are disconnected from nature. Only playing on synthetic surfaces with equipment that leaves not a lot of room for imagination or change.
Thankfully people are waking up to the fact that normal metal and basic plastic playground is not stimulating to children and now, as mentioned earlier there is some amazing nature playground being build in the inner city and suburban areas to make nature play much more accessible to kids. These playgrounds often feature recycled timber and tree trunks, good natural sand or woodchips and equipment made using recycled and natural materials.
These playgrounds are made specifically to help children grow and develop in a natural environment by providing them with ways to develop their gross motor skills while using the playground. They do this by creating uneven surfaces, opportunities to climb and use body strength, equipment that can be used in different ways, water pumps and good building sand, and of course a large area where children are not so restricted and can expand their games and territories. Try searching the Internet or calling your local council to find out where the nearest nature playground is to you. They are marvelous places to have play dates and even birthday parties and still adhere to safety standards to give you peace of mind.
Structured Nature Play
Introducing some structured Nature Play on top of their free play is another great thing to do for your kids and help them develop different skills and enjoy varied experiences. Some simple ideas include:
You can do this as a one on with your kids or as a family activity. Do a little research with your children first in the area you are going to and the possible flora and fauna you may see. Bring along a book to help you identify things and another idea is to make with your kids a scavenger hunt checklist where they get to mark off a list the certain exciting plants of animals they may have seen. This will help keep them engaged in the nature around them and create an excitement about spotting the simple and often overlooked wonders of nature.
A great thing if you want to cover a bit more ground. It gives kids the opportunity to use their coordination while also taking in the world around them. This can be incorporated daily by riding with your kids to school if they still attend, to the store or just as part of a morning fitness routine.
Most kids love a good challenge and a great family activity or even birthday activity for children to do with a bunch of their friends is to create some nature survival challenges. You can get as elaborate with these as you want. Group kids into teams and give each team certain (age appropriate) equipment such and a tarpaulin, rope, bucket and if they are older kids, matches and have them create using those things and what they find in the bush around them to create structures and fireplaces. You could even expand on this by giving them ingredients to make damper or potatoes they could work out how to roast in the fire. While being a super fun activity the kids are also learning leadership and team building while having to use their creative minds.
If your children are smaller you could do a simplified version of this, setting them little challenges such as building a little bridge over a stream of making a tipi out of sticks. If your children are a bit timid and nervous around nature this can be a great way to get them more involved and help spark ideas in them that they can later come back to.
Raising Aware Children
As you can see, the benefits of nature play are numerous. In this fast-paced society where screens have taken over as entertainment and ways of schooling, it is so imperative that we keep kids in tune and in sync with nature. Not only does it benefit their mind and body but it also helps to instill love and value for nature and make them more aware of the things that threaten nature and the ways they can help protect and preserve the earth for generations to come.