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Natural Play Spaces That Empower a Child

Posted on Feb 12, 2014 by

Best time to plant a tree quote

Whether you are at home or at a school, go ahead and look out your window.  You might see a neatly groomed grassy backyard with a shade tree, or a state of the art commercial climber complete with shredded rubber mulch.  I know some of you see a cracked concrete play surface on a busy street fenced by chain link fences, and others see a neglected vacant lot or open field.  Me?  I live on a steep mountain side with a big field and small stream below.  It’s a bit of a trek for young children to get down there on their own–not to mention back up the hill.

All of us have something we can do to improve the outdoor experiences for our kids.

Because everyone who creates a natural play space starts from a different place, we have different priorities.  If you can look around whatever outdoor space you have, and proudly point to delights for all five senses, interesting fine and gross motor challenges, a spot or two for solitude,  loosely structured opportunities for imaginative play, and living things to nurture, your children will use nature to build and empower themselves.  If you can also add touches of whimsy and great beauty, your job it done…

The trick is, to engage children in nature without losing the free and wild of it all.

“The best teachers are those who show you where to look, but don’t tell you what to see.”

~ Alexandra K. Trenfor


If you want to learn more about any of the photos below, please visit my Natural Playscapes Pinterest Board.

Begin With the Senses

Make sure your outdoor space has seasonal and permanent elements that are delightful to touch, smell, hear, see, and taste.  Give this great thought so that there are surprises to discover that are large and small, smooth and rough, bitter and sweet, long and short, crunchy and slimy, warm and cold, wet and dry, heavy and light, earthy and calming.   These sensory experiences, as well as the connecting vocabulary, are authentic work for the intellect.

Children instinctively sort, match, grade and organize sticks, leaves, rocks, any natural things they find, which ignites their ability for reasoning and problem solving.   The rich variety of spontaneous and ordered sensory experiences will pave the path for later learning and create quality connections in the brain.

Add blindfolds, mystery bags, binoculars, magnifiers, which will all extend the experiences, but be sure you are nearby to support them (if asked).  Learn with the children and wonder out loud!

Gateway Spring 2011_37                         kids car wash

Identifying spruce, pine, and fir.                                       Endless wet and colorful fun.



Gongs in the fence.

 Many Motor Challenges

Outdoors is the place to run fast and free.  Breathe deeply and jump and climb.  Let children do what they do.  Err on the side of risk, not caution!   I say, let the children fall and shake it off, laugh as they get muddy and wet but continue to play, and watch their confidence begin to soar.  Big climbing on big rocks and big stumps, rolling down hills, coasting on scooters, marching on stepping stones as they chant, balancing on logs, navigating rope bridges, stomping in puddles, digging, and carrying big things together…Wheelbarrows, shovels, wagons, and scooters are nice, but if you can’t afford them, it’s OK.  Children are clever and will figure out how to make fun happen without them.


planter scooters                  rock path

Scooters made from planters.                    Creative stone or wooden paths invite movement.

There are fine motor challenges outdoors as well.  Think of beautiful and clever  activities children can do independently.  Children instinctively repeat and refine motor challenges until they feel satisfied, so always be thinking ahead to a new and perfect level of challenge to try next.  There are too many to list, but here are some that I love: Weaving, making a pattern of corks in pegboard, building and balancing natural materials, and practicing pouring sand into tubes.

Outdoor loom                       pegboard for corks

Outdoor loom on a stump.                                    Color-coded corks on a pegboard.

prehistoric building blocks                    Pouring sand in tubes

Building with sticks and stones.                             Scooping, pouring, funneling sand.


 Spaces For Solitude

Outdoors is also a place of reflection and peace.  Create a spot or two of great beauty and comfort to sit, lie down, think and be alone.  Watch the clouds, feel the sun, smell the breeze, and be still are beautiful ways to enjoy nature.  A bench, a water feature, a teepee or silks for shelter, or a labyrinth can be so calming.

lavendar by birdbath                     rock chair

I want to go here.                                                                How fun!


 Nurture Living Things

It goes almost without saying that you want to have a gardening area for children.  If you have limited space or resources, use containers.  The number of planting, tending, harvesting activities is really unlimited.  Attract and nurture birds, insects, bats and more with houses and feeders.  Some of us are lucky enough to have cats, goats, or even some chickens to teach our children responsibility and compassion.

Container Garden                   hen and chicks

Containers “planted” for easy care.                                 Chickens are good teachers.

Imagination and Whimsy

Imaginative or pretend play happens wherever there are children.  Children act out home and community experiences, and also take on characters in chapter books that we read and lessons that we give.  I have watched children transform “nothing”  into the Arctic, the Mayflower, and (of course) the Moon.

mushroom whimsy               repurposing rain boots

Add props for the imagination.      Re-purposed rain boots (hopefully with a hole in the toe).

Direction Arrows      vintage truck planters

Print real or imaginary places.                      Something very special for the boys.

In Case You’re Still Unsure If It Matters…

Outdoor play is the Lifeblood of Childhood!

Play teaches life lessons that school cannot.  It is the ultimate blend of real life tests:  social, physical, and mental challenge wrapped in strong emotions.  We care deeply about play, and caring is an important ingredient for learning.  When play is combined with the outdoors and nature, our children joyfully learn life shaping things:

  • confidence and emotional well-being
  • attention and concentration skills
  • communication skills
  • curiosity and a sense of wonder
  • problem solving and cause and effect
  • physical well-being and health
  • balance and coordination
  • resilience and personal power
  • impulse control and how to follow rules
  • empathy and connection to living things

Children need more time for exploration and play to learn who they are.  Nature will give them tools that they will use to solve the real problems life will hand them with creativity and confidence.

So, let’s prepare our play areas with care, do our best to dress children for comfort in all weather, and then give them uninterrupted time, space and freedom to play in nature.




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