Getting your kids outside more and inspiring independent nature play sounds so easy – just open the door and kick them outside, right?
More often than not, when we do this, they’re back inside within 10 minutes (15 if we’re lucky!)
It’s harder than ever to get your kids outside and it’s hard to find nature play resources that will help.
When my friends and I grew up, there was less to occupy our attention. We easily and eagerly gravitated towards the outdoors. In fact, the term ‘nature play’ wasn’t even mentioned – playing outside was just what we did. All. The. Time.
Our boredom gave rise to vivid imaginations, and we would jump into imaginary play easily.
Perhaps you were lucky enough to have a childhood like that too.
It’s so much harder to get our kids outside though. You too might be wondering why.
Here’s why nature play doesn’t come so naturally anymore
You’re not alone… here are some valid concerns from real parents
I’m trying to find the balance of indoor and outdoor time but I feel like there is so much to fit into each day. I’m having a hard time keeping up. We have a decent backyard, but she won’t go in the backyard without me and I can’t be out there with her all day. I simply can’t do it all.
I worry about my kids getting hurt when they’re outside. I want to keep them safe enough while still letting them explore and extend themselves.
My children are rather obsessed with technology and they would choose a video game over going in the great outdoors. It’s infuriating!
There’s no single reason why kids aren’t getting outside – kids are nature deficient for a whole host of reasons.
Today children have so many things competing for their attention. TV shows like Bluey (we love this show), fun little apps that we convince ourselves are educational, and of course, computer games like Among Us and Roblox when they’re a little older.
Children very rarely have to entertain themselves.
Getting my kids outside has always been important to me. Still, I remember thinking often, where on earth do I find the time? I’m busy and so are my kids. Layer extra-curricular activities and homework on top, and it’s hard to find the time to make nature play a priority.
When we want downtime, we can be forgiven for choosing the easier choice and letting them enjoy their screens.
Lack of green spaces
struggle when I drive past new development areas around our suburb. Every new site has a house squeezed tightly into a block, houses so close that you could hear your neighbor cough from inside your home. There is no backyard, no grass, and certainly no room for a tree. Children have less daily access to green spaces and it’s devastating.
It’s so easy to worry. Snakes, traffic, abduction, sunburn, frostbite… anything could happen! We see and hear of so many bad things happening in the media, it heightens our anxiety to the point where we constantly worry that our child is unsafe.
It’s overwhelming to think about how to combat just one of these barriers to outdoor play -but don’t lose heart. There are simple ways to counteract these negatives.
Firstly though, let’s talk about what nature play is and why it matters.
What is nature play?
Nature play is any activity that gets children active or thinking actively outdoors, with the end goal of building skills and the ability to play without the need for parental or adult control. This can be in any setting, so long as it’s outdoors. Nature Play QLD
The majority of nature play should be unstructured free play, in which children lead the way. This means that adults take a step back and let children create, build, problem solve, observe and imagine in nature.
There is value in structured nature play, too.
Sometimes children need an incentive to get outside, especially when they’re new or uncomfortable in the natural environment setting. Scavenger hunts, challenges and nature crafts are lovely ways to entice our children out of the house and into the garden and local greenspaces.
Using both structured and unstructured nature play activities give us the ability to compete with bright lights and alluring storylines created by the digital world.
Why does nature play matter?
Even if our children play sports, they may still be spending too much time inactive due to their screen activities. In the United States, the percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the 1970s.
Children need to be moving their bodies, playing freely, and challenging their muscles in a variety of ways. Playing in nature supports a healthy body.
Studies have shown that nature provides an essential ingredient for healthy mental wellness, and this is something we need to address with our children. In England, 1 in 8 young people aged 5-19 years have at least one mental disorder. Connection with nature has not only shown that we heal faster when exposed to nature, but also that our anxiety and stress is dramatically reduced during and after spending time in the natural world. It makes us better parents, too.
Creativity imagination and visualization
When children are given time to be bored in the natural world, magic happens. Unstructured outdoor play provides immense opportunities for imaginative play and innovative thinking and develops a child’s creativity, problem-solving, and intellectual development. In nature they are building their ability to visualize, which is a powerful tool to help children move toward their lifelong goals.
Nature builds confidence.
Nature improves self-esteem & confidence
Hine, Pretty, and Barton found that exposure to nature improves self-esteem. Having the freedom to make their own choices and learn from their own mistakes gives them a sense of self-confidence that just can’t be found in more highly controlled situations. Nature promotes confidence.
Nature teaches children kindness and compassion
Spending hours observing spiders, planting seeds and feeding bread to ants may appear a waste of time, but I learnt important skills in those moments of quiet.
I learned that:
- if I didn’t water the sprout, it would die.
- spiders have an important job in the world and aren’t as scary as everyone makes them out to be.
- keeping a snail for several weeks meant that I was responsible of taking care of it.
Learning to care about animals makes kids more compassionate, kind, and empathetic by allowing them to feel a level of respect and responsibility for other living things.
Nature teaches reciprocity
My favourite quote is from Robin Wall Kimmerer and she says it all.
“Knowing that you love the earth changes you, activates you to defend and protect and celebrate. But when you feel that the earth loves you in return, that feeling transforms the relationship from a one-way street into a sacred bond.”
Nature gives us so much. Connecting with nature will help us to teach our children the importance of protecting nature.
Simple ways to encourage more outdoor play
Celebrate the seasons
A surefire way to add more nature play to your family activities is to create some regular activities that celebrate the seasons. For example,
Summer: Visit your local beach or creek regularly, enjoy a cold juice outside together and get into sand and shell crafts.
Autumn/Fall: Enjoy regular family walks outside, build an outdoor fire pit and create a heap of beautiful leaf crafts.
Winter: Take hot cocoa outside often, design and build a snow family, make snow mandalas, and paint the snow using food colouring.
Spring: Plant a garden together, go for a nature colour scavenger hunt, pick flowers together and put them inside, create petal potions or a bug hotel.
Take meals outside
I love starting the day off with breakfast in the fresh morning air. When the weather is perfect, we often finish our days the same way.
I don’t know about your kids, but mine eat quickly while my husband and I savor our meal and chat. If you’re eating outside, kids tend to run off when they’re finished and enjoy some ‘vitamin N’ time while you’re relishing the peace.
They have no idea that your plan was to get them outside all along. Sneaky!
Add nature into art experiences
If you’ve been following my website for a while, you’ll know that I love making nature crafts with my kids. Nature is versatile, free, and environmentally friendly. Use natural materials next time you’re in a crafting mood – simply walk outside to a world of resources at your fingertips.
Plant a garden together
If you need something to keep your kids spending time outside daily, planting a garden together is the perfect way to do so. Plan it, build it, plant it, and then harvest all those lovely fruits and vegetables. A garden is a lovely way to connect your kids with the outdoors.
Make your backyard into a nature playspace
Promoting independent outdoor play can be done organically, but often it helps to do a bit of DIY work in the backyard, too. Add to your garden in ways that invite your children outside (no, this doesn’t mean you need to spend loads of money!) Start by talking to your kids about what they would like to play within their yard; you could add lots of sensory plants, craft a nature weaving frame, or build a simple mud kitchen. These alone can encourage your kids outside more often.
Start a nature playgroup
If you need a bit more motivation to get outside, you could set up your own playgroup of kids and parents who meet up regularly in local green spaces. It’s easy for your children to enjoy the outdoors when they have friends to spend time with. Plus, you’ll get some time to relax and socialize with the other adults while your kids play.
Bring nature into the home
Don’t forget to bring nature inside. There will always be occasions where you can’t get outside… we’re currently in a covid lockdown, so we’ve needed to be innovative with this! If you want to promote more nature connection inside your home, add plants to sunny spaces, create a nature table for your kids, and add some beautiful nature pictures to your walls. It will make your home feel amazing, too.
Cheap nature play resources and tools to enhance play
A small bucket can be used in several ways. It can be used to build, carry and collect natural materials. It can also help a child catch an animal more safely than using their hands. it holds the animal for a period of time, allowing for a better opportunity to observe it before releasing it back into the wild.
We will catch a lot of bugs in our buckets but although we can catch and observe them, it can be hard to see the features on such small animal’s bodies.
Using a magnifying glass is a perfect way to highlight those smaller features like spines, antenna and even hooked toes. It gets you up really close!
Many people may not think about adding a torch to a child’s backpack but you’d miss a whole lot of wildlife spying opportunities if you only stuck to searching in daylight! A torch is the must have to go spotlighting.
I love letting my children play in the rain but sometimes it’s simply too cold. Raincoats help your child to get outside when they simply don’t want to feel uncomfortable. Check out 50 wonderful ways to enjoy the rain!
I don’t know about you but my children love cameras. They love taking photos of everything!
Letting your child have their own camera is the perfect way for them to document their nature finds. It’s also a wonderful opportunity for you, as parents, to see what in nature piques your child’s interest.
Here are a few tips to think about before giving your child a camera, including keeping them safe while they take photos of wildlife.
Many animals can be seen, but a lot can only be seen in the distance.
Having binoculars handy in the backpack is not only a great way for your child to enjoy their animal discovery but also allows them to spy more wildlife that they wouldn’t have seen with their naked eye!
Sometimes animals are harder to catch than we’d like. A butterfly/ fishing net is great for catching animals that swim, hop or fly (grasshoppers, moths, fish, crabs, tadpoles, crayfish and more).
A nature journal helps children, connect, understand and classify plants and animals. It also makes a nice visual diary to look back on and discuss together.
Quick start nature play parenting books
How to Raise a Wild Child
by Scott D. Samson
Kids today spend almost 90% less time outdoors than the generations before them. How to Raise a Wild Child is a guide which aims to help combat this alarming statistic, providing you with simple tools to foster a love of nature in your child.
Last Child in the Woods
by Richard Louv
A heartbreaking trend among children and teenagers today is the disturbing increase in cases of depression, anxiety, obesity, and other similar conditions. This book will equip you with a deeper insight into the importance of exposure to nature during childhood years.
The Green Hour
by Todd Christopher
This next book is endorsed by the National Wildlife Federation and has won numerous awards for its ingenuity. The Green Hour is a guide filled with excellent nature play ideas and activities to give you plenty of inspiration.
Balanced and Barefoot
by Angela Hanscom
Written by a paediatric occupational therapist, this is another excellent guide if you are looking for tips and practical ideas to connect your kids with nature. The author endorses unstructured, unrestricted outdoor play as an essential part of every child’s development.
There’s No Such Thing as Bad Weather
by Linda Åkeson McGurk
Linda is a firm believer in the benefits of outdoor play. She was born and raised in Sweden, where it is commonplace for kids to spend all day outdoors – rain, hail or shine. Through her personal narrative, you will learn the true value of her Scandinavian philosophy.
Sharing Nature with Children
by Joseph Cornell
Widely recognised as one of the most popular guides for connecting kids with nature, Sharing Nature with Children is the perfect go-to for inspiration. You’ll have access to fun activities, helpful tips, and a wealth of valuable knowledge to help you create a nature-centered childhood for your children.
15 Minutes Outside
by Rebecca P. Cohen
Fifteen minutes in nature can make a huge difference to your child’s physical and emotional wellbeing, allowing them valuable time to disconnect from the digital world. Rebecca Cohen lists 365 ideas to get your family connecting with one another and with the outdoors.
Quick start nature play Books
Here are just a few lovely nature books for kids – be sure to check out this list of 101+ Nature Books for Kids to see the full list of books recommended by parents!
The Street Beneath My Feet
by Charlotte Guillain, Yuval Zommer
This double-sided book explores the world beneath our feet, digging down to reveal what lies underneath both the countryside and the city. Your kids can immerse themselves in the underground world by unfolding the pages and laying them out on the floor for an involved learning experience.
by Susan Richmond, Stephanie Fizer Coleman
During the New England Christmas Bird Count, a young girl is eager to find as many birds as she can. Along with her team, she counts and identifies many different birds, observing their behaviours and movements. Introduce your children to birdwatching with this informative and captivating picture book.
A Walk in the Forest
by Maria Dek
The forest is an entire world of hidden potential in this charming invitation to explore nature. Encourage your children to appreciate the outdoors and its many wonders.
by Megan Wagner Lloyd, Abigail Halpin
On an adventure away from their urban home, two kids set out to explore the natural world. They soon find that the wild exists all around them if they only know where to look. A great read for curious kids searching for their next adventure.
by David Covell
This book speaks into a digitally-driven world about the importance of getting back to nature, through the story of a girl and a boy as they venture outside. Encourage your kids to ditch their screens and explore nature with this enchanting reminder of how exciting our natural world can be.
by Deborah Underwood, Cindy Derby
A touching story of how nature always finds a way back to us, even as we have become more drawn to the indoors. Children will love the colourful illustrations, and they may find comfort in the narrative during this difficult time of having limited access to the outside world.
Check out the full list of 101+ Nature Books for Kids
Nature play resources and printables for parents
Nature Play Pack
Seven beautiful nature play printables, perfect for encouraging your kids outside.
What’s in the pack?
- Seasonal tree printable
- Nature head craft printable
- Activities to do in nature tear-off tasks
- Nature colour and color wheel
- Backyard Scavenger hunt
- Write your name with nature printable
- Cupcake nature collection labels
“Thank you very much for sending this, we love your nature inspiration for our outdoor play!” – Julia
“Oh, my goodness, what a great surprise! Thank you. Your work is beautiful. Smiling just thinking how much my babies are going to love these works!” – Kristy
Other free nature printables
Butterfly Lifecycle Printable – a beautiful way to learn the lifecycle of a butterfly.
Reptile printable Pack – reptile cards, writing pages and more. If your child is reptile mad, they’ll love engaging with these printables.
Painting using nature printable – Use the natural materials around you as paints to colour this printable.
Bug Scavenger hunt – It’s so easy to get out in your garden and hunt for bugs. Use this printable to help.
Fun nature play apps for kids
iNaturalist (iPhone, Android)
If you want to explore ecosystems around the world, iNaturalist is the app for you. It contains over two million sightings of 85,000 species, contributed by a global community of naturalists, scientists and ordinary citizens.
Geocaching (iPhone, Android)
Geocaching is always a family favorite activity of ours. You can use a paid app, but there is a free version available. Make sure to keep a few fun tokens in your pack to leave in a geocache container if it is one that holds trinkets.
BigMagnify (iphone) or Magnify Glass and Flashlight (Andriod)
These two apps let you get up close and personal with nature. They can be used to look more closely at bugs, leaves, feathers, and anything else you want to take a closer look at.
Sky View (Premium) (iPhone, Android)
You don’t need to be an astronomer to find stars or constellations in the sky – just open SkyView® Free! SkyView uses your camera to precisely spot and identify celestial objects in sky, day or night. Find popular constellations, locate planets, and witness satellite fly-bys.
MapMyHike (iPhone, Android)
Map my Hike can make getting outside more exciting when kids see how far they’ve gone. Plus, parents can use this data to create math problems based on the walks.
GLOBE at Night (iPhone, Android)
Globe at Night is an international citizen-science campaign to raise public awareness of the impact of light pollution by inviting citizen-scientists to measure & submit their night sky brightness observations.
Nature play arts and crafts
If your kids love nature arts and crafts check out our list of 101+ Nature Craft Ideas for Kids. Here are some of our fovourites.
Stick spider webs
Find some sticks and spin and twist the twine around them. These are perfect for Halloween!
Hungry caterpillar Nature Craft
Who doesn’t love the Very Hungry Caterpillar? Recreate Eric Carle’s beloved hungry critter using leaves from the back yard. Your kids will be delighted to create their very own caterpillar picture.
Leaf soft toy
This is a more involved craft and takes a little longer than the others, but the result is absolutely worth the patience and effort! Teach your kids how to create their own soft toys using gorgeous leaf patterns.
Backyard weaving frame
Create a calming activity for your kids to wind down after a long day with this delightful outdoor weaving frame. Weaving is so simple yet so enjoyable, and something the whole family can do together.
Kids are often mesmerized by the lives of insects. Capture their fascination with this adorable bug hotel that helps to make the bugs in your yard feel right at home.
Grass head animals
In this activity, you can make a soil-stuffed animal which grows grass out of its head like hair. How cool! Kids adore stuffed animals, and they are sure to enjoy these animal grass heads.
See the full list of 101+ Nature Craft Ideas for Kids
Nature play doesn’t come so naturally to kids anymore, despite all the exciting and wonderful things there are to do outside. The truth is that kids are more distracted and presented with more options than the generations before them; we as parents face a particularly difficult challenge as a result.
Nevertheless, I truly believe there are many effective ways to get your kids outside and connecting with nature. Whether you live in a concrete jungle or in the middle of the rainforest, I believe every parent has the ability to foster a love of plants and animals in their child.
My goal is to help you foster this love in your own children through simple methods and with simple resources. I hope these nature play resources can help get you started – the whole family will benefit from welcoming nature into your lives.
Julie Ann says
Nature play is beneficial to the physical and mental wellness of our children. Thanks for this amazing article!