Creating simple play opportunities for your children in the natural environment is the basis of nature play. It encourages children to get out into nature and see the natural environment as a place to enjoy, play, imagine, relax and explore.
The great thing about nature play is that it doesn’t have to be expensive or time-consuming. You could take a walk in your local park and get the kids roaming free. There are plenty of fun activities that will have your kids wanting to spend more time outdoors. We’ve gathered 10 of our favourite nature-based activities, and you won’t even have to leave the backyard.
But first, is there a need for nature play?
Yes! It sounds cliché (and could potentially be age-revealing), but most of my time was spent outdoors growing up. My sister and I could regularly be found climbing the fruiting mango tree in our backyard, constructing a flying fox from the fig tree in our front yard, or digging in the dirt near our father’s shed.
However, you’ve probably noticed that we’ve all moved indoors in the past 30 years. Screens of various sizes have replaced our green places.
According to the folk behind Nature Play Week, there are a great many things keeping kids from playing outside. The use of television, computers, the internet and smartphones, increased parental fear, poor urban planning and more highly structured play and supervision are all examples.
The downside to all this is that children today seem to be disconnected from the natural world. This can have disastrous consequences on their mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health. Not to mention the health of nature itself.
There’s a growing body of research suggesting kids thrive outside. Nature play promotes health benefits, including cognitive, social and emotional development, and builds resilience and creativity.
Nature play activities that are perfect for the backyard
If you’ve convinced your kids to ditch their devices and spend some time outdoors, awesome! But if you’re struggling to develop an idea that will keep your kids engaged, these will help.
1. Get planting
Get your children involved in gardening activities and give back to nature. Groundcovers, shrubs and trees are good for attracting wildlife into your backyard. Or plant a vegetable garden; designate an area of the yard, add some fertile soil, and plant some seeds. This will give you a fun and exciting activity for every day of the week, as you’ll need to water the garden and tend to the plants daily.
2. Look up!
If you’re out during the day, look up at the clouds. See what shapes or animals you can find.
At night, look at the stars. Or play ‘Spot the Station‘, where you can see a NASA space station as it tracks across the sky.
3. Read stories
Reading books outside in nature can bring them to life. Lay out a blanket and read together under a shady tree.
4. Get muddy
My children love filling a bucket with water and adding ‘ingredients’ from around the yard. Of course, I have to think twice when they offer me a ‘cup of tea’ or some ‘dinner’…
5. Get crafty
Leaves are a perfect canvas. Collect them in various sizes and from different trees, then spend some time painting and decorating. Alternatively, you can make a collage using different coloured leaves and flowers or a wreath using leaves, flowers, sticks and twigs collected from the backyard.
We recently constructed an Easter bonnet using natural elements collected from our backyard. The best bit — it’s fully compostable!
6. Listen carefully
Birds are fascinating! I love hearing them call to one another. Each bird has a uniquely beautiful sound. Listen carefully and try to pick out the different birds when you’re out in the backyard.
If you want to invite bird sounds into your area, you could also plant the right trees. If you want a bird feeder, please just be careful about local laws (and your neighbours).
7. Do some yoga
Find a peaceful corner of your yard and spend time stretching, moving slowly and connecting with the nature around you. Breathe deeply that fresh air. This is an ideal activity for little ones who are always go-go-go as it forces them to slow down.
8. We’re going on a minibeast hunt
This is an excellent activity for spring as the warmer weather brings many creepy crawlies out. However, this minibeast hunt can be tailored to the season. Get your kids to look closely at the garden, and soon they’ll notice just how much wildlife it’s teeming with. How quickly can you tick the following minibeasts off your list?
- An earthworm coming up after rainfall
- A snail in a dark, damp spot
- A bee looking for nectar
- A ladybird exploring the grass
- A butterfly basking in the sunshine
9. Scavenger hunt
Scavenger hunts are exciting ways to get kids exploring nature. If you’re out walking, they can also be a lot of fun. It’s best to keep it simple for little ones — help them spot different colours or textures, for example. But older children can be challenged to look for seasonal things. Here are some ideas:
- Spring: New green leaves, scented blossoms, sticky leaf buds, moss-covered stones.
- Summer: Soft feathers, brightly coloured flowers, native bees, nibbled leaves.
- Autumn: Different coloured leaves, tree sap, pine cones, spider webs.
- Winter: Leaf skeletons, animal footprints, rough bark, a y-shaped stick.
10. Sunrise, sunset
See how the sky can be painted with so many beautiful colours just by the sun moving. What colours do you see?
The possibilities for nature play are endless!
What nature play activities do your kids enjoy?