Encouraging Children to Play in Nature

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Have you ever taken a walk outside in nature with your children and watched them gather little objects that they find interesting and magical to play with?

When children are outside regularly without constant access to toys or playsets, their curiosity can turn towards natural objects and healthy exploration of the world around them. If this does not come easily for you and your children, try to make it a habit once a week to explore the great outdoors together with baskets in hand, collecting beautiful things. Point out things you find beautiful to your child and share the joy of being present in nature. Playing and moving in the open air stimulates all the senses using the full capacity of the brain. Find a place on the trail or bring these objects back to your yard or even a table to make organic creations.

You will find that materials such as twigs, acorns, straw, leaves, pebbles, and moss can also encourage the children to create small environments for little dinosaurs, farm animals, or small characters they can make themselves out of sticks and twine.

Nature Play

While in nature, allow your children to touch everything (within reason), including dirt, mud, trees, plants, insects, etc.

Bring a bucket and a shovel the next time you’re at a park or on a hike on a rainy day. Within minutes, your young children will start making mud pies or other creations with the slimy muck. If the dirt gets in their mouths, don’t panic; dirt doesn’t taste good at all and they won’t develop a habit for this. Most kids have this innate desire to get dirty. Let them, nurture it, and witness your children blossom in nature.

Another fun way to find motivation with this new habit might be to read with your kids about the artist Andy Goldsworthy who creates exquisite pieces of art directly in nature using leaves, rocks, mud, and twigs.

There are also many books that encourage creating a world of make-believe with organic objects or books that give ideas and instructions for making art in nature. What a perfect way to add memories to a family walk, day out, or vacation by creating art together!

One of my seven-year-old’s favorite books to pack in her bag when we go for walks or travel is Marjorie Winslow’s Mud Pies and Other Recipes.

This is an older book, first printed in 1959, that reads just like a “real” cookbook but it is for dolls and play. There are sections on appetizers, main courses, soups, and desserts, as well as a nice section on suggested menus for all occasions. Delicacies such as Wood Chip Dip, Grilled Mud Sandwiches, and Dandelion Soufflé can be starting points for exciting play with nature’s materials. Our book is already dirty with rippled pages, a well-loved treasure that brings imaginary play and magic outdoors whether it is in the backyard or at the ocean.

Now that you have your child wondering more about the natural world, you can keep them interested with a nature collection that changes throughout each season. Follow your child’s interests as you decide what to collect and keep for awhile. Keep a small table space indoors to display the collection and encourage further play year round.

Have you or your children ever created some earth-inspired decorations, structures, concoctions or natural art?

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I live in South Duxbury with my husband, Matt and our two super energetic kids, Lucy (7) and Sander (4). We moved here from Fairbanks, Alaska four years ago to build our home near family and we are still working on finishing it! My husband is a carpenter and I am an artist. I have an MFA from Arizona State University and lived in the southwest for seven years. I have taught printmaking at the college level most of my adult life, though I am currently on a long break due to homeschooling and enjoying my children. I enjoy gardening, cooking, skiing, hiking, and find any excuse to be outdoors. Our family has a very loved Alaskan husky named Canute and an old Maine Coon cat, Oliver, who add so much love to our home. We recently added guinea hens and chickens to our little farm where we enjoy growing fruit trees, berries, and lots of memories. Vermont has been a beautiful place so far to raise our children and build new friendships.

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