What is a Nature Play Area?

A Nature Play Area is an outdoor area where focus is on child-led independent play,
experimental learning and discovery using natural elements and features.

What Makes the Best Nature Play?

  • The right kind of place: A naturalistic area where kids are free to explore, play, and relax — and even to cause a little minor damage. The “richer” the space, the better: extensive and diverse plantings, dirt piles or digging pits, water, shrub dens, vines, boulders, “secret” niches, expanses of sand, balancing logs, etc. The space doesn’t need to be large, but it should be “dense” with natural features.

  • The right kind of play: Truly free play, where the kids “make it up as they go.” Adult supervision is fine and necessary, but adult intervention should be limited. Let the kids use their own imagination to create play; don’t try to be their coach! If the site is naturally rich, they’ll find plenty to do. And be sure to stress play with nature — i.e., digging, wading, picking, catching, smelling, climbing, etc. — not just play in nature!

Design Principles for Tettegouche’s Nature Play Area

Two design principles we’ve adopted from Green Hearts Inc. that encapsulate the heart of our project.

    • The heart comes first. Nature play is not about learning, and it is not just a “tweaking” of traditional environmental education methods. Nature play is about kids falling in love with nature — and falling in love is not a left-brain process! All nature play will inevitably involve learning, but it will be spontaneous and unpredictable — not the kind of learning that fits neatly into curriculum standards and grade levels. By contrast, structured, school-based environmental learning does not necessarily engage the heart. It is often too infrequent, too indoor, too controlled, and/or too objective-based to allow the creation of deep, individual bonds with nature. So aim for the heart with your nature play initiative. If kids fall in love with nature, they will want to learn about it, and that learning will be likely to endure. In the words of John Burroughs, “Knowledge without love will not stick. But if loves comes first, knowledge is sure to follow.

    • Play with nature, not just in nature. Not all outdoor play is created equal. Many forms of outdoor play will support children’s developmental needs without creating strong bonds between the kids and nature. For example, outdoor play with a frisbee is a great activity for young kids, but it involves nature in only the most passive of ways. Some nature play area designs promote the outdoor use of both simple and elaborate activity stations that could just as well be played with inside. This is outdoor play, not nature play! Real nature play actively engages kids with nature: catching fireflies and tadpoles, digging holes to China, building their own den, climbing trees, finding mini-beasties under rocks, collecting leaves, curling up in a secret niche to watch the clouds, etc. Every major activity in your nature play area should facilitate authentic interactions with real nature.