Childhood has changed over the past few decades, but in many important ways children’s needs have not. To grow up physically, mentally, and spiritually healthy, research tells us that children need abundant unstructured time to play. Time playing in nature is crucial to healthy human development. Because it is rare for a 21st century child to have the right to roam free in the out-of-doors as children of past generations could do, we (educators, caregivers, designers, and parents) need to bring nature and natural materials to the places where children are likely to be spending their time: backyards, schoolyards, churchyards, parks, and early childhood settings.
Welcoming Children to Nature
Natural play spaces engage senses, soothe stress, touch spirits, and inspire children to move, explore, observe, imagine, create, and understand. Transforming traditional playgrounds into designed wild spaces for play means adding things like tree parts, stone, sculpted earth, sand, water, and plants, as well as including evidence of the seasons and cycles and the company of wildlife.
A play space can be designed to communicate a message of welcome to children from their very first glimpse into the space. An inviting entry tells children that this is a space for them. Artful gates, child-height arbors and arches, and intriguing views all invite children into the space. Every element can add to the potential for learning and play—including interesting textures underfoot and overhead and a variety of sizes of spaces and degrees of enclosure.
Varied Landscapes for Active Play
In a natural play space children learn to move and learn by moving.The irregular shapes and surfaces of natural elements like tree parts, boulders, and even earth mounds require focused attention and test coordination as children navigate the space by crawling, climbing, jumping, balancing, rolling, scooting, running, and sliding.
When there is variety in the degree of difficulty of different activities in the space it provides opportunities for children to choose or not choose to try things that are challenging and perhaps risky. This builds self-awareness, allows mastery to develop over time, and increases self-confidence. Examples might include balancing logs sized from wide to narrow and set at different heights; boulders and stumps of different heights and diameters to climb onto and jump off of; and natural or constructed hills of different steepnesses to scale and descend. Loose parts that are varied sizes and weights mean some things may be too cumbersome or heavy to move alone and require cooperation and collaboration with friends.
Loose Parts and Sensory Stations
Opportunities for active play can also come through offering objects to interact with. These loose parts can include tree cookies and stones of varied sizes, bales of hay, sticks, shells, and plant parts, along with tools and household items like baskets, wagons, blankets, and crates. Together these materials provide opportunities to push, pull, lift, dig, grasp, carry, drag, throw, and kick and also inspire industrious building, artful creating, and intricate imaginary play.
Sensory materials like sand, water, soil, and mud provide a wide range of play opportunities from inspiring imagination to exercising both large and small muscles. Sand play can be soothing and calming, especially when the sand is dry and silky. Lifting a full bucket builds muscles. When the sand pit is deep and children are provided with real metal shovels, serious digging can happen. I recommend at least 18” of sand with a layer of coarse gravel below for good drainage. Adding a little bit of water to dampen sand for sculpting, or a lot of water to flow through constructed channels allows for creativity, cooperation, and extensive engineering projects.
Activating Children’s Imagination
Nature inspires imaginary play. Taking on roles in and among natural elements can support play around widely varied themes from exploring what it means to confront danger or to be safe, to follow or to be in charge, to care for others, and to take risks. Shelters within a cluster of shrubs or large grasses, under the branches of a weeping tree, or inside a lean-to built with sticks can be the setting for all sorts of pretending. High spots like a hill or a climbing tree that allow a different view of the space provide the fuel for imagination and give children a different perspective on their world.
If you’ve ever had the experience of returning to a space where you spent time as a child and saw that it shrunk, you understand the importance of scale. A hill or a boulder doesn’t have to be big to feel that way to a child. Having child-sized spaces and materials is empowering to children.
Natural loose parts are the open-ended props that can be anything from a birthday cake to a spaceship. Real-life objects like kitchen implements and toys such as dolls, vehicles, musical instruments, and tools take on different meaning when paired with natural materials. A big pot, some muffin tins, a ladle, and a slotted spoon combined with soil, water, and plant parts become a mud kitchen for whipping up potions and baked goods. Don’t forget to bring dress-ups outside.
All of these props allow children to try on roles, to imagine themselves as grown-ups doing important grown-up things, or as animals or superheroes or fantasy characters. Imaginary play with peers allows children opportunities to practice social interactions and conversations and to develop empathy and skills like negotiation and conflict resolution.
Miniatures such as little figures, vehicles, or animals from the block corner paired with sand, rocks, and plants from nature can inspire elaborate storytelling and complex scenarios. Creating a miniature world and orchestrating what happens there gives a child a sense of power and control that is not usually part of their lives.
All of these elements can comprise a nature play space. Providing places that allow children to play deeply in nature is essential but it’s not enough. The other key component to meaningful play is time. Children need large blocks of unstructured time to allow themes to unfold, projects to advance, and to just be in the out-of-doors.
About the Author
Nancy Striniste is an early childhood educator, a landscape designer, and the author of Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces that Connect Children to the Natural World (Timber Press 2019). See more of Nancy’s work at www.earlyspace.com.