Our Say – Encouraging Nature Play

by Deanne Jones
CERES ResourceSmart Early Childhood Facilitator

On National Tree Day (Sunday 26th of July), my family and I decided to do our bit to ‘green’ the environment. My four year old daughter was particularly excited. She loves getting her hands dirty, picking flowers, collecting natural ‘treasures’ and holding ‘illipedes’ (millipedes).

Fortunately, the sun peaked through the clouds but it had rained the night before and was therefore quite muddy. The wind was also straight from Antarctica so we were all rugged up but comfortable, my 18 month old son in particular resembled the ‘Michellin man’.

We arrived at Edgars Creek Wetland Reserve in the north of Melbourne, signed in and were given instructions to get in there and get dirty. The aim was to build up the riparian vegetation at the edge of the wetland. I was impressed that my daughter got straight into it and put in about 10 indigenous grasses in as many minutes. She had definitely grown up since last year and I observed a sense of achievement and purpose in her participation. To be expected, her attention span wore off shortly after and off she went with her little brother and the other children into the puddles. The look of pure joy on their faces was so rewarding as they added mud to the already ‘muddy puddles’ and jumped in their gum boots splashing water all over including saturating their clothes. As I stood watching my daughter, son and other children enjoy the simplicity of mud, it took me back to my own childhood. Although I don’t have actual vivid memories of the event, I recalled pictures of myself in my high waisted 80’s gear and my hair tied in a lace bow, planting trees along the Merri Creek. It made me realise the importance of these experiences in the formative years. As we say in the Education for Sustainability field, education ‘in’ the environment coupled with education ‘about’ and ‘for’ the environment are essential if we are to engage the next generation to be custodians of their environment. In my experience, participating in events such as National Tree Day in addition to other ‘real nature play’ experiences, has helped to shape my values and interests. I feel a connection to the natural environment and feel part of a ‘community’ who are contributing in a positive way. I feel proud to be creating similar values and providing similar opportunities for my own children.

Sadly, these types of experiences and ‘free play’ in the formative years and beyond is becoming less and less the norm as children are becoming more connected to their electronic devices. Also parents, worried that their kids will be “left behind,” are scheduling almost every waking moment of their lives— school, organized sports, music lessons, etc.—and are racking up kms driving them to and fro.

Research also backs this up showing that the younger generation is becoming disconnected with nature. Planet Ark published an article in 2011 “Climbing trees: Getting Aussie Kids Outdoors” with a shocking statistic that within one generation 73% of parents played outdoors more than indoors, compared to 13% of their children. It also stated that 1 in 10 children play outside once a week or less.

Building ‘bush cubbies’, jumping in muddy puddles, holding back the tide with castle walls of sand, finding minibeasts in the garden, and role play — are some of the things that make up real play. It is freely chosen and directed by children, with no external goal or reward. And it often occurs outdoors, immersed in all the sensory wonders the natural world has to offer.

Dr Scott Sampson (How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature) adamantly argues that authentic play is (and has always been) the most critical activity of early childhood, and gives children a number of benefits, including:

  • Promoting creativity and imagination, problem-solving and emotional and social development.
  • Engendering a sense of self and a sense of place, allowing children to recognize both their independence and interdependence.
  • Fostering cognitive, emotional, and moral development, especially in outdoor settings.
  • Improving such motor skills as balance, coordination, and agility, critical for growing bodies.

Play essentially is the fuel that drives healthy brain development, and the very vessel of learning.

So how do we then foster nature play in the early years and beyond?

  1. Give kids space and autonomy to take risks, staying on the periphery and providing support when necessary. As they get older, increase that separation so as to give kids the freedom to take bigger risks, make some mistakes, and deal with consequences.
    In short, the goal should not be to eliminate risk. Children need to learn how to deal with risky circumstances, or face much larger consequences as inexperienced adolescents and adults.
  1. Schedule unstructured play. Encourage kids to create their own imaginative games and activities, preferably using readily available natural materials—loose parts like water, sticks, dirt, and rocks. Feel free to gather up some of these loose parts or, better yet, have the kids do it!
  1. Let kids engage fully with nature. As with our experience at National Tree Day, it’s a messy, dirty business—picking leaves and flowers, turning over rocks, holding wriggling worms, and jumping in puddles. Rather than saying “no” every time a child wants to pick up a stick, throw a rock, climb a tree, or jump into the mud, take a deep breath and encourage them instead.

Remember, clothes can be washed, and cuts heal. Ultimately, your children (and the earth) will thank you for it!


Sampson, S 2015 How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature.

Sampson, S (2015) Encouraging Nature Play http://www.pbs.org/parents/expert-tips-advice/2015/06/encouraging-outdoor-play/

By CERES Education – Outreach Team|2017-11-06T18:26:48+10:00August 3rd, 2015|0 Comments