Nature Play is Here to Stay

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How to create a nature play environment your children will love to explore.

It’s no secret that children love playing and investigating outside. When you think back to your own play experiences as a child, if you’re anything like me, your most memorable play experiences usually involve being out in the front or backyard. I remember playing for hours on a ton of paving sand and making caves and roads out of it; or using the mattock in the garden to create roads and rivers for when I played with my soldiers. In recent years the ‘nature play’ movement, has seen resurgence in the idea that playing outside in nature is memorable and therapeutic - and for good reason. Nature play has a positive effect upon children’s physical, cognitive and emotional development; the basis for creativity, problem solving, reasoning, socialising and managing risk. 

What is the purpose of nature play?

Play is about learning and child development - more so than child entertainment. It is an important part of healthy development in which children challenge themselves and practice skills, and children who play regularly in natural environments show more advanced motor fitness, including coordination, balance and agility, and they are sick less often (Grahn, et al. 1997, Fjortoft & Sageie 2001).

Creating a nature play environment

With the developmental benefits in mind, how do you create a nature play environment at home? Quite simply, you create opportunities to explore, discover and engage in your own garden.

The design of your garden doesn’t need to be an amazing architecturally designed landscape, it just needs to be a space to create memorable experiences, opportunities for wonderment and a place to belong. We can all remember a touch, sight, smell, taste, or sound which triggers a memorable experience. To use your garden as a learning environment is about the journey, not the destination. Plan a garden that makes the most of its natural elements such as sun exposure and topography, involve and listen to your children about how they want to use the garden and incorporate that into the design. Children like small spaces to explore and crawl through so create compartments and connect them with paths, and expect and allow for loose parts play, stones or pebbles to be stacked, logs to be rolled.

Children also want to be involved and contribute. They love helping, like my children, who collect the chicken eggs, grab the shovel to collect the dog poo, pick fruit or help pave or plant. Of course things take twice as long with them in tow but they also learn for themselves and as a busy parent it’s a great opportunity to delegate tasks.

How our nature play garden works

Yes, we are fortunate to have a larger backyard by today’s standards but a lot of what we have done in our backyard can also be achieved in a smaller one with minor adjustments. Our 200 square metre nature play backyard contains 17 fruit and nut trees so my children can experience what comes into and out of season – a smaller garden can still include a fruit tree, even in a pot. The trees also create mood and shading, a forest effect for hiding, and attracting insects and birds. It is accompanied by a sand pit and mud pit with rock borders and an outdoor shower to allow the children to dig, mix, create and clean up after! At ground level children have a sense of independence created by dense planting of succulents, lavenders, deities and canna lilies which create secluded hideaways, and require children to follow meandering paths to discover what is around the corner; while an adult from the living room can observe the children. Elevated timber cubby houses plus an old metal jungle gym provide height to allow the children to be above adults and see things from a different perspective, and a 1950s bucket swing allows the children to explore their environment from another point of view and imagine the possibilities.

In nature play children can find their own level. When needed, they can find refuges for quiet play or if they’re after rough and tumble, they can easily find their spot. Nature play caters for all learning and emotional types. Just as important though, by encouraging independent play it enables children to work together and learn valuable skills while parents get to sit back, relax and enjoy watching their children grow. 


Your nature play garden doesn’t need to be a large area, it just needs to be a place where children can explore. Here are some tips on what to include:

  • Include a variety of plant types (such as flowers, fruit trees, shrubs) for children to explore and learn
  • Create high and low experiences with plants and items to climb and crawl underneath
  • Create small spaces for children to crawl through and hide inside
  • Be flexible, allow children to make changes to the space through digging, planting, stacking and moving rocks
  • Include a variety of elements, dirt, grass, water and rocks
  • Mix toys and other household items into the nature play environment

By Nathan Sim

This article was originally published in State of Play, Issue Two, September 2016