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Six great nature play ideas for summer

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Mother and son at the beach


In a world where mobile devices, on demand television, and digital games are tempting distractions, outdoor play can take a back seat.

It's an irony our grandparents would likely find amusing. After all, 50 or even 20 years ago nature was the dominant playground of most children. How times have changed.

"We are indoors so often and there is less appreciation for the natural environment,” says Nicole Sadlier, Regional Coordinator, Early Years at Bluearth Foundation.

Nicole now dedicates much of her time to encouraging families to spend more time in nature.

"We are trying to get people to see the same value in nature play in the way that we might see in something like GymbaROO or an organised sport," Nicole says. 

“Those are fantastic but the natural world offers so many development opportunities for children.

"There are physical challenges, cognitive challenges and the opportunity to navigate risk, even with something as simple as climbing trees or playing on uneven surfaces.”

Summer and the school holidays both offer endless opportunities for nature play.


Try some of Nicole's favourites with your children and remember, the goal here is to keep things simple, cheap and don’t overthink it.

Idea 1: Take a slow stroll

One of the easiest ways to engage children in nature play is a stroll around your local neighbourhood. This doesn't have to be fast; in fact it's better if it is slow – very slow.

Nicole points out that most of the time, we are really busy getting ourselves – and the kids – from A to B, which often means that we miss out on simply checking in with the natural world around us. During your stroll, make the effort to get down on your child’s level and look for things with them.

"Parents are surprised at what they learn. They tell me that previously they would never have stopped to look at all the different coloured leaves on the ground, or enjoyed spending 15 minutes looking at all the bugs on one tree with a magnifying glass near their local playground," Nicole says.

If the destination isn’t important (in this kind of activity you’re not trying to cover a great distance, instead, the focus is simply on observing what's around you) pre-schoolers will also enjoy being the "guide” and choosing which direction to take.

Idea 2: Start a collection of natural items

Even before young children understand the idea of pockets, they are natural collectors. There is nothing more fun for a young child than finding a special rock, stick, leaf or feather and taking it home.

Nicole suggests taking a small bucket when you head out collecting so that all the “treasures” can be brought home.

“You might like to make them into an artwork before returning them to nature to make room for your next collection," she says.

Idea 3: Create a dry creek bed

If you have room in your backyard you might like to turn a corner of the yard into a dry creek bed.

Many of today's playgrounds are very flat, and are made of a ubiquitous rubber soft fall material. A dry creek bed changes all that: it allows children to build up skills walking on an uneven surface, and controlling their balance in a way that will help them be more confident on their feet.

Don’t feel this needs to be a big project. Even a small dry creek bed weaving across one stretch of your yard will provide hours of enjoyment for young children. They will crawl along it, push their toy trucks across its bumpy path and get creative with the stones.

“A dry creek bed is much less permanent than a wet one, and cheaper too,” says Nicole.

Idea 4: Grow something

Most young children love the opportunity to garden, and with this project, it’s easy to start small.

“Keep things simple if you are new to growing and start with a couple of large pots or some herbs you will be able to use in your cooking," says Nicole.

Kids will love tasting all the different flavours, or smelling what you grow. Plus, when it comes to dinnertime they will be keen to watch or help you harvest your crop.

To keep your own interest up Nicole suggests starting by growing something you like, whether that's succulents, flowers or micro greens.

Idea 5: Ditch your shoes

Most adults will remember a childhood where shoes were freely abandoned.

Don't forget to give your own children the same joy: going barefoot not only enhances the outdoors experience but it provides a number of other sensory benefits for children (and adults!). 

If the surface is too bindii-filled for that, on your next outing pick your child up and put them on your shoulders for a bit so they can see what the world looks like from up high.

Idea 6: Turn fixed equipment into a nature-based experience.

It doesn't matter what the kids are doing, according to Nicole once you are outdoors nature-based opportunities abound.

“If the children are jumping on a trampoline they might start noticing the birds overhead or the moon out in the day," says Nicole.

Remember, as a parent your job is not to show them what to look at. Instead, simply help them learn how to look and how to take their observations that little bit further.

Still not sure where to start?

“Taking a book outside or going for a picnic are great ways to start breaking the indoors habit,” says Nicole, noting that chances are the kids will find something to do as soon as they are outdoors.

Lastly, remember: if the weather isn't looking good adhere to the old adage.

"There is no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing," laughs Nicole.

For more tips on introducing nature play to your children visit the In My Backyard Facebook page.