Nature play

DNR forester and landowner walking in landowner's woodlands

For all of human history, children have played in trees. In trees, we find peace and reflection, explore our limits, and experience hours of adventure. Are the trees growing near your home climbable? Do they offer solace on a stressful day, shade for quiet reading, or dead limbs and branches for building? There may be more opportunities for nearby nature play than you think.

Why play in nature?

Nature play is a critical part of human development. Playing in trees, forests, and with nature provides a safe space to assess physical risk, an environment to nurture good mental health, and promotes overall good physical health through activity.

It's safe

While long-term studies are being developed on nature play, current thought is that nature play provides more challenging and numerous options for safe play. For example, a slide is designed to be used only one way. Children's natural curiosity lead them to begin using a slide in unintended ways. That's where injuries are likely to or can happen. Nature play is flexible—no objects are created for one set use. Walking on a log provides a low-risk testing of balance before moving onto advanced activities where the log might become a pirate ship that children run on, around, over, and under defending from mythical marauders!

It's healthy

Scrambling on logs, building forts, and digging in the dirt provide hours of imaginative play. Logs become pirate ships, forts become feats of engineering, and who knows what we'll find in the dirt! Trees provide shade and protection from UV rays, dirt provides beneficial, immunity-enhancing bacteria, and children are more active physically because they tend not to get bored playing in nature.

It's easy

Letting a part of your yard or neighborhood park "go wild" is easy. Lay down a large log for sitting, balancing, and climbing. Plant trees and berry-producing shrubs that attract wildlife and children. Provide large sticks and pieces of burlap for building forts. Most importantly, give children permission to explore these areas and let them "own" it!

It saves money

Even a simple swing set with a slide costs upwards of $700. The typical playground equipment found at a school or park costs between $100,000 and $200,000¹. Average playground equipment purchased today typically needs to be replaced ever 15-20 years. Setting up even two nature play features such as limbing a tree for climbing, laying out a digging pit, or providing a barrel of long sticks costs very little and creates more diverse opportunities for play. In addition, property values can increase up to 20 percent² when your yard contains healthy mature trees and native plants and shrubs.

What does the research say?

Hundreds of research articles support the benefits of nature play for healthy children. Check out the information and decide for yourself!

1. Source: National Playground Safety Institute, National Recreation and Park Association,

2. Source: National Arbor Day Foundation

Get started with nature play

Here's where the fun begins! Think of the activities you enjoyed most in childhood. Does your list include climbing trees, building forts, finding frogs, reading in a quiet place, or playing in water? Every kid knows where the "wild places" are in their neighborhood. Can you make your wild places better?

Be OK with a little mess

Nature is beautiful, and sometimes messy. If you are a fan of manicured yards, create a nature play space that is less visible. Can you sacrifice some lawn and designate a corner for play? Consider building a low fence or create a plant/shrub border around the play area if you wish.

Tree parts

Did you know that the stick was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2008? Sticks become swords, magic wands, and fishing poles. Nature play needs "loose parts," so bring in sticks, tree cookies, tree stumps, or plywood scraps for building forts. The nooks around the bases of trees can become fairy houses or places to leave secret messages.

Climbing "equipment"

Instead of hauling off dead trees from your yard, leave the trunk behind to use as a balance beam or seating area. Prune and limb sturdy trees for safer climbing. Remove sharp or hard objects from under the tree. Large boulders and rocks provide hours of climbing and building fun. Strategically placed stumps allow children to hop, skip, or jump from one to another.

Water elements

Drag a hose to the nature play area to create a temporary stream or sand/mud pit, water plants, and also wash mud from hands and clothes. Provide buckets, funnels, or plastic tubing to allow children to experiment with pouring water. A pail of water beckons as a place to dip fingers, float sticks, and sink rocks.

Bring nature to your yard

Everyone loves watching wildlife. Plant a few new trees or berry-producing shrubs, hang some birdfeeders, and provide a birdbath. Consider lining a small, shallow pit with a pond liner, add water, and watch wildlife abound! Install a small fountain that trickles water to block traffic sounds. Plant hardy wildflowers to attract butterflies, hummingbirds, and other beneficial wildlife.

Find nature play areas

While any green space, park, or tree near your home can work, many areas exist as examples of dedicated nature play areas that are open to the public. Visit them and be inspired!

How to encourage nature play

Playing with nature means immersing the whole body and mind into the world around you. This could involve climbing trees; scrambling on uneven terrain; listening to rustling leaves; smelling soil or plants; repurposing sticks into forts, swords, or magic wands; and letting imaginations fly. Unlike organized sports, which are controlled, structured by adults, and can involve a lot of time on the sidelines, nature play is unstructured, unorganized, and engaging for everyone—as play should be!

  1. Let children explore and discover at their own pace. Secrets and joys found through self-discovery will be more memorable.
  2. Let children take risks. When young children are allowed to explore risks early on at their own level of comfort, they are less likely to take dangerous risks when they are older. Risk-taking helps children build problem-solving skills, understand the limits of their physical competencies, and be better prepared to face life's challenges.
  3. Give children space to play and explore on their own. You can be nearby to ensure the child is safe. A discovery is only a discovery when it is found, not told to the child.
  4. Talk with your child, not at them. "Why do you think this tree has thorns?" is more useful than "Watch out for those thorns." Modeling how to wonder and ask questions will help a child discover and learn. Let their imaginations roam!
  5. Nature play spaces don't need to be large, but need a few simple things such as tree branches or sticks, a pile of sand (or dirt or stones), stumps, or water. Throw in a few child-size pails, trowels, pieces of rope, or containers for collecting "treasures," and children will instinctively know what to do with them.
  6. Regular, year-round nature play in nearby spaces such as in a yard, courtyard, or even in a neighborhood woodlot has more impact on fostering a child's physical, emotional, and social health than a few field trips a year to a far way park. It also nurtures a future adult who is more likely to appreciate, understand, and steward nature.
  7. Involve the whole family. When children see their loved ones outdoors, they are more likely to feel comfortable and engage in play. Welcome friends and neighbors to your play space too.

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