Top 5 – Nature Play


Last week we brought you a blog highlighting the many benefits of nature play. While any outdoor play is beneficial, play in natural environments, such as a forest or athletic field, has greater opportunities for discoveries. These opportunities yield greater exploration and learning.  But let’s face it, we don’t all live or teach near a forest, so how can caregivers or teachers mitigate this, and make the most of their outdoor space?  We’ve rounded up some great nature play resources and ideas for everyone – whether you live in a rural or urban environment.  The first two come from Emily Porter, Education Program Specialist at the National Zoo.

1. Children and Nature Network – The Children and Nature Network (C&NN) is a non-profit organization co-founded by Richard Louv, author of the seminal text “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.” C&NN supports grassroots efforts to encourage natural play and education by creating networks of teachers, parents, and natural organizers to share ideas and ask questions and by providing a wealth of free resources, including toolkits for establishing Family Nature Clubs in your community. Their 2015 guide “Thriving Through Nature: Fostering Children’s Executive Function Skills” describes how and why natural play supports executive function development and provides a variety of specific nature-based activities by age group.


2. Help Children become Young Environmentalists – Many environmental conservation organizations like Friends of the National Zoo are intensifying their efforts to promote natural play among young children and families based on evidence that demonstrates the connection between natural play and conservation-based behaviors later in life. In this spirit, our FONZ children’s classes provide opportunities for  young learners to participate authentically in environmental conservation. Not only do these activities promote agency and responsibility for young children, but they also help us focus on the positive narratives of conservation, rather than the typical “doom and gloom” stories that can be overwhelming for young children. For example try out one of these activities from our classes with your children:

  • Instead of throwing away scraps of yarn, gather them and hang them on tree branches for birds to use in nest building.
  • Make seed balls with native wildflower seeds that can be thrown into barren areas to create habitats for pollinators.
  • Create temporary mud puddles to use as play habitats for plastic animals like elephants, warthogs, and frogs to explore the different ways that animals use mud and dirt in the wild.

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3. Tinkergarten Tinkergarten is an organization that promotes nature play for families with young children, and they offer classes around the country for ages 18 months to 8 years.  In addition, their website has a plethora of DIY activities that can be filtered to specific ages, length of activity, and skills that the activity helps to develop.   For example, their Tiny Friends activity encourages children to stop and look at the bugs that are in their environment.  The activity outline has ideas for books to read, questions to ask, and how to prompt further curiosity.  Even if you don’t teach or live near a forest, this activity can be done in a yard or small patch of grass.


4. Bring the Outdoors In – One factor contributing to children’s lack of outdoor nature time is the diminishing lack of green space, but you can bring the outdoors inside in a variety of ways.  We love these nature-inspired sensory bottles from Rhythms of Play.  They’re safe for babies, mess-free, and can be changed depending on the time of year or what your children are interested in.  Another way to get nature inside is by using natural materials for art projects.  During our one snow storm in Washington, DC this year, our art educator, Carolyn Eby, brought in buckets of snow, and used it as a blank canvas for their art.  The children used waterproof battery-powered lights and water colors for their creations.

5. Smithsonian Garden’s New App – Community of Gardens- Smithsonian Gardens has just released a free app, Community of Gardens, that explores the hidden stories of gardens nearby and around the country.  Download the app and take a walk around your neighborhood, stopping at the gardens on the map to read the stories with your child. You can even share your own garden story with the Smithsonian!  Work together to write a story about your garden, or take this opportunity to make your own garden, even it’s only a flower box.  Planting seeds, watering, and pulling weeds are all great sensory and movement exercises, and watching the changes in your garden is a fantastic way to incorporate science concepts. (25)

Please comment and share some of your favorite nature play activities; we’d love to hear your ideas!  And check out our Nature Pinterest board for more ideas!