Natural Play: What is it?

Natural Play is a way for kids to explore their surroundings in a safe and fun way. Natural play can be as simple as getting your child to go outside, or as complex as designing a whole backyard garden area complete with climbing structures and areas for exploration. Natural play can be done anywhere!

The concept of natural play is becoming very popular in recent years and has become a darling of architects, planners, and developers worldwide. But what are the elements of natural play, and why is it better than conventional playgrounds?

Natural play is based on the idea that children should be able to play in an environment that is as close to nature as possible. This means using natural materials and avoiding anything that is man-made or synthetic. It also means creating spaces that encourage physical activity and imaginative play. Natural play includes climbing trees, building dens, and cooking outdoors.

Here is everything you need to know about natural play.

Elements of Natural Play


Water is a key element of natural play. It can be used for so many different activities, from building dams to splashing around. Providing water is a way of encouraging exploration and connection with nature. If given the opportunity, children will play in the water all day long, so make sure that adding a water source to your outdoor space is at the top of your list.

A DIY Water slide.
Providing water is a way of encouraging exploration and connection with nature.

Also, ensure you don’t leave your child unsupervised around water for safety reasons. If there is water in a bucket, then there should always be an adult present to monitor its use.

Feed the Senses

When planning your natural play area, think about the senses. What will children see, smell, touch, taste, and hear?

There are many ways to stimulate the senses using natural materials. For example, you could plant an herb garden, vegetable garden, or flower garden for children to smell and taste. For sight, plant a variety of colorful flowers, take a nature walk and look for the natural items in all the colors of the rainbow, or adopt a tree in your neighborhood and observe it in all four seasons.

For sound, add some chimes or a wind chime for them to listen to. If you’ve got rhythm instruments like sticks, shakers, and drums, then bring them outside and play them in the open air. For touch, you have all opportunities around you, including water, sand, mud, rough bark, smooth stones, waxy leaves, and delicate flower petals.

Access to Tools

If you have a backyard, great! If not, there are plenty of ways to get your nature fixed in an urban environment. Look for community gardens, parks, or even vacant lots that you can turn into a mini-nature oasis. Get creative and think outside the box.

Kids love to dig. Allow them to dig and not with those cheap plastic sand toys. Visit your local gardening center and pick some hand tools, including shovels, forks, trowels, and a couple of lightweight buckets.

A little boy diging.
Children want to help, and they want to feel like they’re contributing.

As with water play, tools should be monitored, and proper instructions are given first. Do not throw tools, avoid digging in areas that you’re not allowed to dig, or use tools in an unsafe manner. Encourage your child to help you with yard work if possible.

A small shrub rake will make a perfect child-sized leaf rake, and a broom with a wooden handle can easily be cut shorter to make it more manageable for your little one. Children want to help, and they want to feel like they’re contributing, so get creative and find ways to include them in working in your outdoor space.

Gross Motor Opportunities

Outdoor play is a great way for kids to get the physical activity they need. Kids can run, jump, hop, and skip around your backyard or garden, all while getting their heart rates up and using up some of that extra energy. Apart from these activities, consider adding elements that encourage different types of gross motor activities and add them when you can.

If you have limited space, look out at the nearby parks or natural areas and consider the following:


Consider trees with low branches, fences or low walls, fallen trees in the woods, and avoid rocks. Children love to climb, and are only through climbing that they learn their limitations and how to overcome them. Always supervise climbing play and trust that your child will figure it out, get stronger, and learn to assess risk. You can’t become a strong climber if you can’t climb, so allow them to climb.


Walking along with a fallen log, trying to stay on top of a large ball, or simply walking heel-to-toe are all excellent balance challenges. Balancing play helps with gross motor skills and proprioception. These improve a child’s core strength and control, resulting in fewer falls and fewer injuries. Balancing also builds confidence and improves skills.

A boy balancing,
Balancing play helps with gross motor skills and proprioception.

Carrying, Pulling, and Pushing

There are many ways to move heavy objects (or even just pretend to). Pushing, pulling, and carrying help with gross motor skills, muscle strength, and endurance. These activities also help with problem-solving skills as your child tries to figure out the best way to move the object.

Quiet Spaces

Finally, creating a natural play space for children is about giving them the opportunity to connect with nature. And one of the best ways to do so is to be still, listen, breathe and just be. Whether it’s a small bench in a flower garden, a tree stump in the woods, or a rocking chair on your porch, providing spaces that encourage quiet reflection and contemplation are key to a child’s connection with nature.

Benefits of Natural Play

Creating a natural play for your children is one of the best ways to encourage them to connect and spend less time inside, watching TV, or playing on their devices. Children love to be outside, and the benefits of outdoor play are numerous. These include:

It Builds Confidence

When children are allowed to take risks in a safe environment, they learn to trust themselves and their abilities. This leads to increased confidence both in and out of the playground.

It Teaches Resilience and the Ability to Negotiate Risks

Outdoor play also helps children to develop a growth mindset. By taking risks, making mistakes, and trying again, they learn that setbacks are only temporary and that they have the power to overcome them. This helps them to develop resilience, which is an essential life skill.

Climbing on trees or other objects also helps children understand the risk involved in the process and thus be better at risk assessment. Even if children sustain a minor injury, something in them grows. They also learn problem-solving skills and develop a deeper appreciation of physical activities.

It Teaches Responsibility

Climbing also helps children to develop a sense of responsibility. They have to be careful while climbing so that they don’t hurt themselves or others. This sense of responsibility also extends to taking care of their equipment and keeping the area clean.

A boy and girl climbing.
Climbing also helps children to develop a sense of responsibility.

Living things also die if mistreated or not taken care of properly, and entrusting your child to take care of the living parts of their environment means that they’ll learn what happens when they forget to water a plant or pull a flower out by its roots.

It Reduces Stress and Fatigue

Natural play is a great way to reduce stress and fatigue. It is a low-impact activity that gets your heart rate up and helps you to use your muscles. Climbing also helps to improve your balance and coordination.

It is also a great way to get outside and enjoy the fresh air. Being in nature can help to reduce stress and improve your mood.

It Gets Kids Moving

Natural play is a great way to get kids moving. This is because most ways of interacting with nature involve more exercise than sitting on a couch. Your kid doesn’t have to be joining the local soccer team or riding a bike through the park. Even walking will get your child’s blood pumping.

Not only is exercise good for kids’ bodies, but it can also make them more focused, which is especially beneficial for kids with ADHD.

It Provides Different Stimulation

Most of the time, kids are bombarded with visual stimulation from screens. According to a study done by the American Optometric Association, too much screen time can lead to problems such as headaches and neck pain.

Nature provides a different type of stimulation for kids. They can use their senses to smell the flowers, feel the wind, and hear the birds. This can help kids to be more in tune with their surroundings and themselves.

It Helps Kids Connect With Their Senses

When kids spend time in nature, they are forced to rely on their other senses instead of just sight. This can help them to connect more with their environment and pay attention to detail.

For example, if they are looking for a specific type of flower, they will need to use their sense of smell and sight to find it. This can help them to connect more with their surroundings and pay attention to detail.

FAQs on What is Natural Play

What is the natural play theory?

Natural play stresses the importance of physicality, movement, and social interactions in early childhood development. This theory believes that children learn best through their natural surroundings and by engaging in free, self-directed play.

What is the meaning of the natural play?

Nature play is any activity that gets children active or think actively outdoors, with the end goal of building skills and the ability to play independently. It includes all play in which children are physically and mentally engaged with their natural surroundings, whether a backyard, a park, the beach, or the bush.

Toddler outside smiling.
Natural play stresses the importance of physicality, movement, and social interactions in early childhood development.

Final Thoughts

Connecting with the nature outside is the best thing you can ever dream of. And nature play is the simplest and the most convenient way of doing so. It doesn’t matter whether you are in your backyard or at the park, as long as you are with nature, you are good to go.

So, what are you waiting for? Go take a break from your phone, turn off the television, and go outside to play! Your kids will love it, and so will you.

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