Establishing Nature Play Routines

The first few years of a child’s life represent a time of enormous and unmatched growth, physically, cognitively and socio-emotionally. As caregivers, we want to ensure that this time is saturated with positive experiences, language exposure and knowledge. This period of growth is also critical in laying a foundation for a healthy, lifelong relationship with the natural world.

Supporting your child’s development during this time can feel overwhelming and you may find yourself asking, “Where do I begin?”  

When you are searching for ideas to incorporate nature play into your family routine, the best place to begin is with your own attitudes toward nature. While trying to address your children’s needs and simultaneously establish a relationship with the outdoors, you are the best resource. There is no need to be a trained naturalist or an environmental expert to provide meaningful outdoor experiences for your little ones. The most important thing is that you are prioritizing hands on experiences in nature by setting aside time, giving children space to explore and providing repeated opportunities for this type of play. One of the best qualities of nature play is that it can be implemented in a variety of settings and can be executed very simply while still having a lasting impact.  

Once you’ve decided to invest in a relationship with the outdoors, there are a few things that can help you establish routines and make your outings a success. Here are some tips to get you started:  

Find Your Space

Nature play does not have to happen in a stretch of untouched wilderness, deep in a forest with no sign of modern civilization. A patch of grass in your neighborhood, a local park, a community garden bed, or a favorite tree can fulfill the same need. In fact, it’s important for children to recognize that the natural world exists within the cracks in our sidewalks and the plants sitting upon our windowsills. Research shows that it is often the ordinary, not the extraordinary that we remember most fondly.

“The special places that stood out in memory, where people formed a first bond with the natural world, were always part of the regular rhythm of life. In these places, people became comfortable with being out in the natural world….” — Louise Chawla

“Life Paths Into Effective Environmental Action;” The Journal of Environmental Education; Fall 1999.

Incorporate Loose Parts

Children are makers—they are driven to manipulate, move, alter, explore, combine and create. They touch, taste, observe and analyze everything in the world around them, trying to understand it. Loose parts are at the core of nature play due to their open-ended exploratory qualities. Children will collect acorns, stack rocks, sort leaves and arrange branches to create a fort, all while exploring their own imaginations, creativities and testing their own boundaries. Nature’s resources are abundant, so don’t be afraid to take advantage of the seeds, sticks and stones you discover on your adventures. Keep in mind that wildlife often relies on these items for survival, so don’t forget to leave nature the way you found it and do your best to not disturb or cause harm.  

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Encourage a Sense of Wonder

A sense of wonder is inherent to the young child, a characteristic that needs to be nurtured so it is not lost. Time should not be spent worrying about correctly identifying types of trees, species of birds or animal tracks. Instead, ooh and ahh at simple things together—the way rain clings to the thread of a spider’s web, the pattern created on a leaf after an insect has nibbled on it, how sun shines through a canopy of trees, distributing bursts of light on the forest floor. Sharing a sense of wonder for the natural world enhances the caregiver-child attachment, so stay curious and encourage that same curiosity in your child. Wonder often leads to understanding, in time.

“Knowledge without love will not stick. But if love comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.” — John Burroughs (American naturalist, 1837 – 1921)

Provide Tools for Exploration

While nature play requires nothing but a child and the natural world, there are some items that can serve as useful catalysts for exploration. When we set out on a nature walk, we often pack a backpack with the following tools—

Magnifying glass

There is a whole world that exists beneath a damp log and in between the ridges in a piece of bark. Don’t forget to take a closer look!

Binoculars

Homemade ones assembled from paper towel tubes work perfectly for toddlers.  

Color swatches

Pick them up at your local hardware store and search for the many colors in nature. This is a great fall or springtime activity!

Basket or reusable bag for collecting

Collecting and gathering is a common inclination at a young age. Carrying a basket or bag on your walks allows children to identify items they’d like to explore further. Return the items back to nature once you’ve finished investigating.    

Wildlife guides

When you are ready to take your wildlife walks to the next level, it’s valuable to have a guide on hand. There are some excellent guides available for free download online, or you can visit The National Wildlife Federation for an extensive guide to North American animals. Familiarity with the wildlife you share space with can lead to a better understanding of how we can peacefully co-habitate.

Next time you are faced with the decision to go out or stay in, remember, you already have all the tools you need for a successful nature play outing, you just need to use them.

In search of more resources?

Check out our books and resources page for suggestions on extended reading for adults

Read Ken Finch’s, A Parent’s Guide to Nature Play, for additional ideas

Written by Emily Van Laan