10 Ways to Nature Play at Home

The weather here in Denver, Colorado has been teasing us with blue skies and warm spring sun, joined by cold fronts and a chilly breeze. But no matter how much the weather changes, spring is upon us and it’s evident by the budding trees, green plants emerging from the ground, and the sounds of wildlife right outside our windows.

Normally a buzzing time (literally with the bees and butterflies), it can feel as though the COVID-19 pandemic has cast a shadow on spring with families and their kids quarantined indoors and limited to the space they have at hand. It’s gotten harder to get our kids outside and interacting with nature, to experience the magic of spring blooms, and breathe in the fresh air while following social distancing best practices.

A welcome video from Sarah Konradi, Director of NWF’s Early Childhood Health Outdoors program.

Now more than ever, getting outside in nature has so many benefits and we want to help your family find ways to reap the rewards of spring right in your own backyard, patio or balcony, and even your kitchen table. Developed by the National Wildlife Federation and the Natural Learning Initiative, the Nature Play at Home Guide has easy, affordable ways you can inspire nature play for young kids. Over the next few weeks, we’ll be highlighting projects from the guide on social media, so be sure to follow along and check out a few of our favorites below:

Natural Construction

Natural construction offers children natural and manufactured materials such as logs, branches, rope, and bamboo for building forts or other creations, large and small. These materials can provide hours of engaging activity for long play sequences, day after day. Imagination is the only limit to the many variations of forts, cubbies, clubhouses, hideouts, and dens. 

Backyard materials that can be used as part of natural construction. Credit: ECHO Program.

Natural construction can still happen in a small space or even indoors! An afternoon of fort building on the balcony or using sticks to prop up sheets in the living room can be a special recurring play activity. Easy to take down when necessary, sticks, fabric, string, and leaves can be reused and recycled as needed.

1.  Choose an area that includes trees, logs, fences, walls, or posts to provide a structure for children to build against to support children’s ever-changing, imaginative constructions.

2.  Select natural and manufactured building materials carefully to allow for safe, fun building (no sharp, splintered edges).

3.  Gather a mix of materials in the natural construction area for the children to use.

Some materials to consider include: Sticks or branches, bamboo, straw bales, pieces of burlap or bed sheets, cardboard boxes, rope and twine, tarps or outdoor fabrics, leaves, pine needles, logs and stumps.  

Fairy Villages

Indoor fairy village. Credit: ECHO Program.

Fairy villages are homes for elves, fairies, and other beings of children’s imagination and are a special form of natural building. They provide enchanted places that stimulate creative, dramatic play in make-believe settings. Fairy villages can be any scale, created inside a hollow log, on top of a tree stump, in a planter inside the house, on a patio or in a quiet corner of the backyard. You can even use native, pollinator-friendly plants to attract butterflies to your fairy village.

1.  Find (or create) an enchanted place for your fairy village whether it’s a planter, glass bowl, outdoor patch of dirt or tree stump. Just about anything will work!

2.  Provide small, natural loose parts that contribute to the construction of a miniature fantasy world where fairies, gnomes, elves or dragons might reside. Think moss, small twigs, leaves or flowers

3. Leave notes and see if the fairies respond.

4.  Relate your fairy garden to your children’s favorite fairy stories.

5.  Keep an eye out for goblins!

Some materials to keep in mind include: planters, moss, twigs, acorns, bark, leaves and flowers, houses or castles commonly used in fish bowls and aquariums, and other miniature accessories.

Outdoor fairy garden. Credit: ECHO Program.

Earth and Mud Play (Yes, MUD!)

Earth and mud play are an integral part of healthy childhood. Becoming familiar with the earth and critters by scooping, smoothing, digging, and discovering the properties of the earth are fascinating activities for children of all ages. Earth and mud play vary widely depending on you and your child’s preferences and what your space allows. If limited to a small patio or deck, try filling a large tub or bucket with soil and adding a few scooping/digging implements. In a larger space, designate a digging or earth play area by surrounding it with logs or stones (great for sitting on). Toddlers require only a few square feet to dig.

1.  Designate a place for earth or mud play.

2.  Provide earth, water, and other materials you may have on hand.

3.  Let the kids play and use their imagination!

Some materials you may need include: earth, dirt or soil, water for mud, digging toys like dumpster trucks, shovels (even spoons) and cups, old pots and pans, buckets, and chairs, stones or logs for sitting.

Earth play. Credit: ECHO Program.

Want even more ways to nature play? You can find the full list of projects below!

We want to hear from you and what your family is doing at home. Send us photos of your nature play projects and be sure to visit Early Childhood Health Outdoors on Facebook and Twitter for ways to interact with nature inside and out. 

For even more videos and how to create a wildlife friendly garden, you can also visit NWF Naturalist, David Mizejewski’s Facebook page. We hope you all stay safe, healthy, and use this time to connect with one another and the natural world.

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