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Nature-based play

It's pretty obvious that we love spending time outdoors, and love it even more when we share those awesome experiences with our toddler. Lila's eyes just light up when we go outside, and she gets sooo excited when she discovers a new thing. She found an ant last weekend while camping and gosh- imagine how amazing a simple little ant must be to a child who has never seen one before!

This got me thinking about the learning and discovery process that takes place outdoors. The dorky teacher in me just had to research this style of learning and teaching. Turns out, it's a well-known pedagogy: nature-based play.

What is nature-based play?

Simply, nature-based play draws upon the great outdoors as the teacher and the toy.

Think about when you were a kid. I know I spent many afternoons exploring the woods behind our house, and hunting for crawdads in the creek at my Mamaw and Papaw's. Rarely did we have constant supervision. Rather, we were left to explore and discover on our own. Likewise, I clearly remember my Grandma Py teaching me about lighting bugs in the summer evenings at her lake house.

Nature-based play was a vital part of my childhood, and I strongly believe this upbringing has led me to be the person I am today.

Benefits of nature-based play

There are numerous, research-backed benefits to nature-based play. The smart folks over at the University of WA detailed all sorts of incredible benefits to this style of learning:

  • Children who play in natural settings play in more diverse, imaginative and creative ways and show improved language and collaboration skills. Single use, repetitive play equipment becomes boring quickly.

  • Children who play in nature have more positive feelings about each other.

  • Bullying behavior is greatly reduced where children have access to diverse nature-based play environments.

  • Symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder are reduced after contact with nature.

  • Children who play regularly in natural settings are sick less often. Mud, sand, water, leaves, sticks, pine cones and gum nuts can help to stimulate children's immune system as well as their imagination.

  • Children who spend more time outside tend to be more physically active and less likely to be overweight.

  • Children who play in natural settings are more resistant to stress; have lower incidence of behavioral disorders, anxiety and depression; and have a higher measure of self-worth.

  • Natural, irregular and challenging spaces help kids learn to recognize, assess and negotiate risk and build confidence and competence.

Sure, this seems obvious, right? But sadly, this philosophy has slowly fizzled out over the decades. With the advent of iPads, cell phones, flashy electronic toys and more, it's all too easy to occupy our kids with technology.

Of course, that's not to imply that technology is bad. I have a PhD in Ed Tech, and love brainstorming how to thoughtfully pair technology with hands-on activities (I'll be sharing some ideas later in this blog). We live in a digital world, after all, and kids should know how to use these incredible tools. BUT, it's all about balance, people, and ensuring that we provide tons of opportunities for nature-based play.

Simple ways to incorporate nature-based play

I'll share lots of simple activities in this blog that will promote discovery learning and outdoor play. But let's be real for a second- my daughter is one year old. All I had to do this past weekend camping was show her some wildflowers, pinecones and allow her to free-range in the dirt and grass!

It's so easy, right? But it's also often overlooked. We are a germ and dirt-wary society. I mean, how many of you have hand sanitizer in your purse? (I know I do!). But allowing Lila all the time she wanted to crawl around, get filthy and eat dirt to her heart's content was so cool and fun. Yes, I squirmed a bit when she licked her dirt-encrusted hand- but c'mon, she's exploring and discovering.

So aside from just letting your kid free-range, here's five super easy ideas:

  1. What scent is this? Gather different objects with different scents, like grass, flowers etc. Sage is great for this! Place the object close to the child's nose with his or her eyes closed, and ask the child to smell it. For older kids, ask them to try to identify what it is.

  2. Nature Mystery Bag. Collect different types of rocks, leaves, grass, twigs and foliage that will fit in a sack. Have kids reach their hands inside (without looking!), hold onto something. Older kids will have fun guessing what they're touching.

  3. Nature's Pallet. Use sticks to draw in the dirt. Add in leaves, flowers, etc to make different shapes and objects. Create a self-portrait using only what they find around them. Take a picture and print it out to display at home. They'll love seeing their art, and you can conure up the memories later.

  4. Treasure Hunting. For older kids. Hide a surprise at the campsite, at the park, or in your backyard. Make a map and have the kids find the surprise. Draw in trees, bushes and walkways to help them along the way. X marks the spot!

  5. Pinecone Toss. (Think: cornhole using only nature. Or cornhole without having to lug those big boards around). Dig a little hole, or make a circle in the ground. Have your child toss a pinecone and try to hit the spot. Increase the distance as they hit the target. And bonus- adults can play it later once kiddos have gone to bed. There may or may not be adult beverages involved. I'm not saying we've ever done this. But I'm not not saying it either. ;)

It's so simple, and so fun! You'll be amazed at how exciting these little games can be!

What are your favorite outdoor games or activities? Please share!

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