So you have the sticks, the rocks, the leaves, and even the mud. Now what? Encouraging nature play can be a daunting task for a caregiver of young children, especially since young children today are especially allured by screens (I'm looking at you, iPads). As adults, our role in facilitating nature play is to nurture children's sense of wonder and to encourage them to explore. There are few rules here, but it is important that children have freedom of choice in their play. Children should have free reign to dig, climb, build, bury, collect, sort, and hide. The best kind of play comes from a kid's imagination, not an adult's!
However, that does not mean that adults should always sit back and let kids have all the fun. Sometimes children need encouragement in getting started with nature play, especially city kids. Don't be afraid to be the first one to splash in a puddle or dig in the dirt. By modeling activities, we give children confidence to do it themselves. And once they get started, they will likely try out more things on their own. Then, with young children, we can narrate their actions- "Wow, you are holding a big, grey rock!" Use simple words, but the more descriptive the better, as this helps to build vocabulary. It's also best to avoid quizzing questions. Instead, make observations on the senses utilized during play- "This sand feels wet." "Look how red this leaf is!" Also make sure to sit or kneel down to kid level. This may seem obvious, but children are less likely to be able to focus, understand, and learn from you if you are literally 'over their head.'
Finally, most importantly, have fun! The more smiling and giggling the better, from both you and your child. If your child associates time in nature with positive emotions, she will be more likely to enjoy and appreciate nature as an adult. She may even grow up to be the next great conservation biologist or zoo researcher. You never know.