Nature Play as an Everyday Joy of Childhood? For Kids, Frequency Requires Proximity

Most of us who enjoyed nature play in our childhoods realize that it didn’t matter if we had a pristine patch of forest to play in or just a couple of vacant city lots.  Either way, there were endless things to find, explore, capture, imagine, and play with.  But what was important is that these places were right there, within our walking/running/biking distance.  No car, no parent, and no schedule were needed to get outside and play in nature.


The children and nature movement is fostering wonderful new ways for kids to play outdoors, such as designed natural playspaces, family nature clubs, and naturalized schoolyards.  These and other similar efforts are valuable steps – not only for the kids, but for parents who are reconsidering their children’s indoor, nature-deprived lives.  Yet most of these new approaches are challenged in one vital dimension:  frequency


When Dr. Louise Chawla (University of Colorado) researched influential childhood experiences in nature, she found that, “The special places that stood out in memory, where people formed a first bond with the natural world, were always a part of the regular rhythm of life.”  Those powerful experiences didn’t typically come from annual family camping trips, but rather from day-after-day, week-after-week events in children’s lives.  Actually, no special research is needed to realize that frequent childhood activities have more lasting impact than ephemeral ones.  Practicing the violin once a month is not a very effective strategy!  Is it better than nothing?  Perhaps – but only if you set your sights very low.


The same equation applies to nature play.  If we want it to have maximum impact, then it needs to be “part of the regular rhythm of life.”  It seems unlikely that we can achieve this solely through monthly meet-ups or widely scattered playspaces – strategies that require parents, cars and calendars, and thus compete for time within families’ hectic schedules.  Are these approaches valuable?  Absolutely!  Are they sufficient?  Unlikely.


If we really want to power-up nature-based play, it needs to be available where children can enjoy it almost any day, without adult involvement or confining schedules.  For most kids this means either home yards or neighborhood parks – and (sadly) only the former is likely to alleviate the fears of 21st-century American parents.  Can a typical quarter-acre suburban yard actually support nature play?  Or a city lot half that size?  Or an apartment courtyard?  The answer is yes, especially for kids of about two to eight years old.  Younger children’s worlds are much smaller than those of adults.  They don’t need sprawling spaces or eye-popping vistas.  Their attention naturally focuses on tiny and manipulable pleasures:  on dandelions rather than rose gardens; on earthworms rather than herds of bison; on a patch of dirt to dig in rather than a yawning cave to explore.


Unfortunately, the typical American yard is no haven for nature play.  Good nature play requires “rich” settings – that is, a diversity of plants, animals, and landforms that create endless opportunities for discovery and engagement.  Turf grass lawns, solitary shade trees, and a few neatly trimmed shrubs do not meet these criteria.  However, even the sparest yard can be augmented for good nature play with a little thought, a dose of elbow grease, and much less money than what those elaborate backyard play sets cost.


The key is to create yards with a “density of diversity:” a collection of micro-habitats that will harbor lots of natural discoveries and delights throughout the seasons.  These micro-habitats might include a shrub thicket, a wildflower garden, a jumbled pile of boulders, a tiny garden pond, a butterfly garden, a berry patch, a mass of tall native grasses, or even a space allowed to just grow into whatever comes up!  Once you’ve established a few of these tiny worlds in your yard, you can enhance them with a digging pit or a giant dirt pile, a couple of large logs, bird and toad houses, a bench or hammock in a quiet nook, and plenty of “loose parts” to nurture creative and constructive play.  These loose parts can be branches, driftwood, cattails, bamboo poles, boards, tree cookies (log slices), tarps, seed pods, pine cones, large boxes, hay bales, and whatever else you can readily scrounge up.


By focusing your primary efforts on creating multiple micro-habitats, you will ensure authentic nature play:  interactions with real nature, in all of its beauty, wonder, unpredictability, and adventure.  Manufactured outdoor play components – like the plastic play equipment designed to look natural – do not create the same connections to the natural world.  Kids can’t peel the bark off a plastic log to find rollie-pollies, and they won’t find monarch caterpillars feeding on fiberglass leaves.  In fact, one big, over-grown wildflower bed -- or a patch of flowering shrubs laced with tiny paths -- will bring more lasting and real nature play to your kids than will any human-made product! 


Note, though, that nature playscapes are more “messy” than most home landscaping, so you may want to keep much of your nature play zone in the backyard where it won’t generate hostility from neighbors who think front yards should look like golf greens.  However, certain nature play features are usually “dressy” enough to bring into front yards, like butterfly gardens, boulders, and herb gardens.  And by highlighting street-side nature play, you may encourage other local parents to think more about “kid-scaping” their own yards.  Nature play zones get better and better when more of your neighbors imitate and add to your own efforts!


None of these steps towards home-based nature play require great knowledge, training, or expense.  They can be implemented bit by bit, and your plans can be in constant flux as you discover what your kids and their friends most enjoy.  The ultimate goal is to create enough nature play “critical mass” so that your kids are excited to play in their own yards -- day after day, and whenever they wish.  Then nature play will be a regular joy for your children; then it will achieve the frequency needed to influence and benefit them for decades to come!



A few suggested resources with ideas to support home-based nature play:


- “A Parents’ Guide to Nature Play” from Green Hearts Institute for Nature in Childhood:


- National Wildlife Federation’s guidance on creating backyard wildlife habitats:


“Nature Play:  Simple and Fun Ideas for All” from Forestry Commission England:


A Child’s Garden:  Enchanting Outdoor Spaces for Children and Parents, by Molly Dannenmaier


Plants for Play:  A Plant Selection Guide for Children’s Outdoor Environments, by Robin Moore


Natural Playscapes:  Creating Outdoor Play Environments for the Soul, by Rusty Keeler

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Replies to This Discussion

I love this post! You touch on so many important points about creating rich environments for nature play and then getting kids out into them. I agree that removing the barriers to frequent and spontaneous outdoor play are vital, and that our culture often emphasizes the annual trips into nature (if we're lucky), while ignoring the day-to-day opportunities for fun outdoor play, which will often take place in a nearby yard or park. Thanks for writing this, Ken!

Amen, We are all about getting kids and adults outside in close nature in the backyard and the close park. Living in the city I have created an wonderful Outdoor heaven for play, it also including all kinds of nature elements but also outdoor play elements. One of my daughters friend just told me " I have the best ever backyard ever " best compliment I ever got.

Here is a post I did about it how to create an outdoor play heaven for families : 

A couple years ago I put a few big sandstone rocks in my flower bed to fill holes that my dog dug up, and inadvertently created a nature play area.

Last week my seven-year-old announced he was going mining in the backyard. A couple minutes later I heard what sounded like a hammer on rock. Sure enough, he'd discovered that sandstone breaks really, really easily. My first thought was, "Those sandstone rocks were hard to find..." Then he held up a piece that had been stained red and asked, "What's this dark spot?"

That triggered a discussion of how the sandstone had iron in it and the red was rust (I held it next to the rusting grill on my fire pit so he could see they were the same color), why you can't see the iron, how they get little bits of iron out of rocks, how they get the rocks, what the hole looks like after they've gotten all the rocks they want and so on.

When we were done, he looked me straight in the eye and said, "You knew there was iron in your rocks all this time and you didn't tell me? Don't you know I mine for iron in Minecraft!?"

Minecraft is an online game he and his brother play where you build your own sort of world out of stuff that you find, mine or otherwise accumulate. I learned two things from this:

  1. A few rocks in a garden can be a natural play area. (He also discovered that there are bugs under the rocks, so the ones he didn't break into smaller rocks were turned over onto the flowers beside them to see what was there.)
  2. Computer games, in moderation and of the non-first person shooter variety, maybe aren't entirely evil. If I take a more active interest in them than just censoring and banning the inappropriate ones, maybe I can use them to engage my boys in the real world.

On the flip side, I (or more likely the rocks) infused Michael's virtual world with the real world. The fact that iron occurs in real rocks that he can touch and break into smaller rocks--in his own backyard--has led to an interest in where man-made things come from. It's also led to a new found joy in hitting hard things with a hammer to see what's inside them, but that's another blog post...or counseling session...

Great post Ken.

Having spent the last month in Sweden studying regularly-used nature playscapes like the type you're advocating, I've found that even here in nature-loving Scandinavia, parents are understanding and prioritizing the benefits of regular unstructured time in nature less and less. So our work and education of these issues are very important!

I agree intuitively that regularity is an important part of connecting children to a naturescape. However, I'd also add two ideas that I've talked about with Swedish play-researchers and advocates.

First, the importance of children naming and choosing their nature spaces. If adult playworkers (e.g. parents) facilitate children's play outside, it is vital that the adults allow the children to "create" the space by naming different locations and choosing where to play from day to day. This gives the child senses of ownership, intimacy, and stewardship. And yes, as you said, the better play areas will become "messy!"

Second, the importance of recreating all "home" activities outdoors. In "all weather schools" or "rain or shine" schools in Sweden, students decide where the kitchen, bedroom, dining room, school room, and toilet will be, outside. They name these areas and help their teachers make them usable. This recreation of normal living outside allows children to fully feel "at home" and "comfortable" in the natural world, and therefore, extend the duration and value of their outdoor play and learning.

Nail on the head, Ken. Great blog. I like to think of those less frequent activities, like the family nature club near and dear to my heart, as jump-starters for more frequent nature play. Once that spirit is kindled and the ritual established, the hope is that kids will get out in nature more on their own—hikes with family and friends, backyard play, camping—all of it. Personal experience with my own kids tells me too that, once stimulated by more exciting opportunities for nature play, kids can find a way to play in nature even when only a modicum of nature is available. In fact, I am sitting on a porch in an urban setting (in Heredia, Costa Rica, where our family is spending the summer…soon to visit some much, much more natural areas) watching my son, who has been playing in a large pile of construction dirt and small patch of weeds for the past two hours (see photo). He has some toy dinosaurs and is letting his imagination run wild. That said, I love the idea of enriching our yards with more opportunities for nature play. We have a good start in ours (dirt piles, “wild” areas, potted plants providing great habitat for earwigs and pillbugs…and most importantly we don’t have an uptight attitude that forbids them from “hurting the flowers”). Our backyard is a mess, and probably an embarrassment. In our front yard we have gotten away with a very well designed native garden, which is attractive and probably bothers only the most uptight of neighbors…and provides wonderful nature play areas. And I think we are the only people in So Cal who eat in our front yard.

But your ideas inspire me to do more. In fact, I think our club should host a how-to backyard nature play party. We've had mud-filled messy birthday parties (think dirt pile plus hose) and play-outside-the-park days where we encourage club members to leave the playground, but I don't think we've made a concerted effort to model backyard nature play for our club. Now, we will!

Ken, this is truly an important statement. The notion of frequency gets to the heart of the matter when it comes to nature conection. Without abundant exposure to local nature, kids simply aren't going to make meaningful connections with the natural world. And the reality is that parents are not going to let kids roam the neighborhood as they did a generation or so ago. So it is a powerful notion to contemplate a movement to re-nature backyards (and schoolyards). Thanks very much for sharing these ideas.

Ken, what a good point you make, and I especially appreciate the resources you've included at the end of your post.  Thanks for the inspiration to continue to improve our kids' experience in our own yard, where they certainly do spend most of their outdoor time on a daily basis.  I've learned so much in the last year about ways to incorporate natural elements into our yard through C&NN and the Grassroots Gathering, but have a long way to go in actually doing so, so your blog has inspired me to do much better.  One thing I've started is a Pinterest board of photos of outdoor natural play ideas - so I'm looking forward to checking out the links you've provided to gather more inspiration.

One of the nice things about living in San Diego is that almost year round our front yard is an extension of our house. I often send the kids outside once they're dressed and ready for the day before we actually head out.  They find all kinds of good fun in those transitional moments outside, and it has become part of our daily ritual.  In addition, we always spend time in our backyard at the end of the day, usually while I'm making dinner, so I can keep an eye on them as they make "salads" and mud pies and pick strawberries and tomatoes.  

On another topic, one of our favorite parts of eating breakfast is spotting the birds in our yard through the window, so I encourage others to think about ways to bring the outside in, by arranging our interior activities to maximize our children's connection to the outdoors.  Granted this is not the same as actually playing outside, but I think it is important. This is something I've heard Stephen Kellert speak about, and I think there is a lot to be said for how we design and arrange our children's (and our own) indoor space to connect to the outdoors.

One other point I'd like to bring up is how important it has been for me, as a parent, to find a nursery school program that offers my children outdoor and nature play time as well.  There are definitely many ways to help children connect to nature for early childhood educators, and there are plenty of resources for teachers and school administrators.  As parents it is important to seek out programs where our little ones can have access to outdoor natural space, use of a nearby park, bike path, canyon trail, beach, etc. as part of our children's preschool experiences. 


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