Nature Play

Nature Play

The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association (PLTA) says: “Unstructured, frequent childhood play in informal outdoor settings powerfully boosts the cognitive, creative, physical, social and emotional development of children. It also engenders deep conservation values; more so than any other factor.”  Continuing research is supporting this statement.

In an effort to explain the idea further and to encourage conservation organizations to get involved,  the PLTA has published a free forty-page book on the subject.

The book has two major parts:

A Primer on Nature Play and Its Importance (Part 1)

This section begins with the assertion of Stephen Jay Gould who said “We will not fight to save what we do not love.” The premise is that those who are now conservationists working to conserve a wide range of aspects of the natural environment do that work because they fell in love with the natural world earlier in their lives.

Child's PlayPolls show that people love nature, but the priority they put on it, compared to other issues of the day, has steadily declined since a peak in 1970.  The PLTA wants to raise that priority defining the goal this way:

“But it will not be enough to simply explain and promote the ecological value of protected land, since people may fully understand that, intellectually, without feeling any personal attachment to the issue. Instead, the goal must be to guide new supporters into personal relationships with nature.  Many readers remember appreciating a special natural area from afar, but that place only became a passionate concern for them once they’d hiked its trails, paddled its waters, and soaked in its scenery.”

This section discusses the way that kids have moved away from direct interaction with the natural world as a result of urbanization, parental fears, liability worries, over-scheduled childhoods, and plugged-in play and why getting back in touch with nature is so important.  Besides creating more people with a conservation mindset,  childhood play in natural surroundings benefits:

  • cognitive development through activities of observation, concentration, exploration, collecting, sorting, experimenting, and building.
  • creative development through activities such as sand and mud play that lead to artistic projects and by the various pieces of nature ( sticks, rocks, seeds, cones, cattails, leaves, drift wood, tall grass,etc.) that can be drawn into new creations and pretend play
  • physical development through running, jumping, digging, climbing, hiking, balancing, tumbling, skipping, carrying heavy loads, and even negotiating uneven surfaces
  • social and emotional development through the stimulation and interaction kids get through shared play in nature,
  • spiritual development through quiet times spent patiently observing, daydreaming, and reflecting that stimulate the sense of beauty, appreciation, wonder, and awe.


Restoring Nature Play (Part 2)

The question is, “How do we restore frequent, unstructured nature play to children’s lives?”  There seems to be broad agreement that kids need to get more into nature, so this section focusses on how to help them do exactly that.  As a first step, the book suggests that the rules for outdoor play be considerably relaxed as there are simply too many “do nots” associated with being in natural places.  It asserts that kids should be allowed to damage the resource saying:

“They will chase away wildlife, pull leaves off branches, dig holes, step on ants, muddy streams, throw rocks in ponds, whack sticks against tree trunks, collect feathers, pull the wings off beetles, erode steep creek banks, nail boards onto trees, and who knows what else. Yet if 1,000 children do this at a natural area for 100 years, they will almost certainly cause less ecological harm than a single bulldozer will do in 60 minutes as it clears a nearby site. In fact, they will probably do less ecological harm than was done creating the driveway, parking lot or trail for public access to the natural area.”

It is this kind of shift in perspective that is needed to allow children to get the nature experiences they need to grow into healthy adults.  Why be concerned about potential injury during play while every six minutes a kid is treated for injuries sustained on stairs and the number one killer of kids is automobile accidents?  Why be concerned about liability when anyone can sue over anything and you can  properly manage the risks in a play space (see Managing Risk in Play Provision a 120 page free book on the subject).  It’s all about the balance of minor risks against major benefits.

The book goes onto describe a variety of features that can be incorporated into a naturalized play area that will attract kids, including:

  • Climbing logs and hollow logs
  • Shallow water features
  • Digging pits and dirt mounds
  • Large landscapes of sand
  • Narrow paths cut through tall grass, shrub thickets, or dense woods
  • Tree stumps for balancing
  • Tree houses or forts
  • Sticks, branches, bamboo poles, and cattails for building forts
  • Vine teepees or sunflower houses
  • Shrub thickets
  • A selection of tools
  • Berry patches and fruit trees
  • Quiet spaces
  • Leaves

The overall idea is to give the kinds a natural place to play with the components and tools needed to generate the largest number of play opportunities.

Since the book is designed to get adults working on these concepts, it includes a variety of other resources and helpful ideas to get things going.


It is becoming increasingly clear that kids need more nature play.  This book offers a great introduction to the topic and can help you or your organization create key opportunities that will help kids get that play.

Please Share

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I accept the Privacy Policy