Nature play: 5 play areas to take outside (come rain or shine)

Babies thrive out-of-doors. They sleep better, eat better, look better, play better, and learn better. Fresh air both soothes and stimulates. I always tell parents how much more easily they could raise healthy, “happy” children if they would make outdoor living a regular habit for their babies.” – Magda Gerber, Dear Parent: Caring for Infants With Respect

I grew up in the UK on a small, friendly close in a semi-detached house with two gardens, front and back. We were surrounded by views of fields and woods and although I was not of a ‘free range’ generation like my parents had been, I still spent ample time outdoors either in our back garden or the gardens of neighbours . As an older child I was allowed to venture into those fields with friends and eventually as far as our local canal. Fast forward a couple of decades and I find myself raising my own child in a very different context.

Until just a few months ago we lived in a 7th floor apartment with a small balcony and a communal outdoor pool on the first floor (that we rarely used). It wasn’t until we moved to a house with a yard that I realised how little Althea had been exposed to real nature and how different our childhoods might be as a result of living in an urbanised area. Our regular walks around our old condo pool had not prepared her at all for all the leaves that would blow and collect around the yard; the snails that would hide behind the plant pots or people passing by the gate. She was utterly overwhelmed and at times downright terrified.

I quickly realised I was going to have to make a conscious effort to get us outdoors more. There are so many positives to living in a city, we have so much culture right on our doorstep: art galleries, museums, zoo’s, festivals but what we don’t have is the natural backdrop of the fields and wooded areas of my own childhood.

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist.”
Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Exposure to Nature and Nature Play is believed to alleviate childhood obesity, have positive effects on behaviour and have a desirable impact on social development.

Nature inspires creativity in a child by demanding visualization and the full use of the senses.”
Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Many educational philosophers including Magda Gerber and Maria Montessori acknowledged the need to expose children to nature and allow for uninterrupted, self-directed and explorative play in a natural outdoor environment.

“There must be provision for the child to have contact with nature; to understand and appreciate the order, the harmony and the beauty in nature”. Maria Montessori

Whilst access to a completely natural playscape is preferable, we’re starting small and close to home. I live in a country where I don’t yet know enough about the plants and animal species to let my 18 month old roam freely in the woods and whilst I am keen for her to take risks, I am not keen for her to eat something poisonous or be bitten by a snake. As she gets older this is something we can hopefully learn more about and explore together. In the meantime, just taking play outside into our front yard feels like a positive step in the right direction. Outdoor play in constructed or ‘greened’ playscapes is still believed to have a positive effect on children’s social development, motor-skill development, attention and activity levels (Parsons, 2011).

Living so close to the equator we are very fortunate with the weather here, even when it rains it is warm (and quite a spectacle) and although temperatures average around 30 – 35 degrees Celsius, a large section of our yard is under cover and we have an outdoor ceiling fan. So really we have no excuse. Equipped with sun screen, a hat, mosquito spray and a bottle of water, we’re just fine outside in the yard for large parts of the day.

How you construct your outdoor playspace will depend largely on the space you have available and the age of your child. For very young, immobile babies, outdoor heuristic play such as filling a basket with natural objects that are safe to mouth and explore and setting it out on a blanket is probably enough.

For very young children, contact with the environment will be a holistic and sensory one. Sara Knight Forest School and Outdoor Learning in the Early Years

Once you start to approach the toddler years you can allow access to things like sand, soil and water.

Sand, grass and earth are natural elements that all children need access to if they are to learn about their world, and how to move around in it safely… Water is a welcome risk which can be added to sand, earth, and so on. Water play offers endless opportunities for creativity. Sara Knight Forest School and Outdoor Learning in The Early Years

But simply taking some of your child’s preferred play outdoors is a good place to start. Here are three of the areas that were previously set up in our indoor playspace that I decided to move outdoors:

+ Art Area

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This MALA Easel from IKEA has a black board on one side and a white board on the other. I’ve left some chalk in the tray and this is where I set up painting/crayoning. I have left an art table in her play room for times when we feel like staying inside or sitting down to do an activity. Bringing the art table outside or using a mat on the floor would also work well.

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I love using the SAMLA underbed storage box to contain large scale, messy art activities, I just place a large piece of paper in the bottom with paints/crayons

+ Role Play Kitchen

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We use this Hape Indoor/Outdoor cooktop as our mud/messy kitchen with child sized pots and pans. Inside we used it with a tray of dried lentils to support a preference she was showing for filling and pouring. Outdoors we can use this with mud or sand to continue to support this type of schematic play, whilst also introducing her to new sensory experiences. At the moment we are using compost soil which she can add water to if she wishes.

+ Reading Nook

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We make sure we have a basket with a selection of books to read outside. We have some outdoor seating and a triangle mat which she likes to sit on.

+ Caring for the Environment

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Alongside her ‘Mud Kitchen’ we have filled the IKEA SAMLA box with compost, plant pots, some pieces of trunk from an old houseplant and the EverEarth 3pc Garden Hand Tools Set. We also have some easy to care for plants that she can water.

+ Water Play

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We either use the IKEA SAMLA Box for waterplay and add containers or small world creatures or we fill up the paddling pool that we are able to use on a regular basis.

I’d love to hear about how you go about incorporating nature in early childhood and what sort of play you take outside.

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