Contributed by Jocelyn Pierce, local mom and Founder/Lead Learner of the Nature Skills Cooperative

The facts are in: nature play provides TONS of advantages for kids.

Time spent playing outside positively impacts kids in just about every way possible. It improves cognitive development, helps them grow strong bones and muscles leading to better balance and reduced injury, and it can even strengthen their immune systems!

Some parents or other adults may underestimate the many benefits that outdoor play provides. Unstructured play might seem like “wasted time” for kids and adults. With to-do lists a mile long, some parents get stressed feeling like they’re not getting important tasks accomplished while it seems like their kids aren’t really “doing anything.” 

Other parents might struggle because they don’t see a concrete improvement right away. The influence of nature play can’t be ticked off on a worksheet. Aren’t kids supposed to be learning? Caregivers might opt for structured activities that seem more “educational”. There are lots of ways for kids to learn, so of course these activities are positive! But playing outside provides kids with important stimulation and learning just as much as other more structured educational activities… and perhaps even more.

Mr. Rogers said, “For children, play is serious learning.” This is doubly true of play in nature. The best part is, nature is ALL around us. Whether that’s on the balcony of your apartment complex or at a National Park, we are always embedded in nature, so you can get the benefits of nature play each and every day no matter where you live.

Learning more about these positives can help parents recognize the educational experiences kids have just by playing outside. So here are five simple ideas to reap the benefits of playing outside—today!

  1. Collect Treasures on a Nature Walk

Invite kids to collect treasures on a nature walk around your yard or neighborhood. This child-led activity helps kids get or stay in tune with what interests them. Walks can happen each season as well, so you might shift from collecting flowers, rocks, sticks, or acorns depending on the season of the year. Level up: wrap a piece of tape sticky side out around each person’s wrist. Let kids use this to create a “nature bracelet” of plants and flowers that they find interesting. Bonus for parents–now you don’t have to stick acorns and leaves in your pocket!

2. Go on a Bug Hunt

Insects are an essential life force on our planet. But if your kiddo is anything like my toddler, she might scream every time she sees anything resembling a bug. Bug hunts put kids in the drivers seat to look for insects instead of being surprised by them. Learn more about different types of insects and the roles they play in pollination or the food supply! They may be creepy crawlies, but we should appreciate all these tiny creatures do in our world. This helps flex kids observation skills as they take time to notice the world around them.

3. Rake and Shovel 

Any time I head outside I bring a rake and a shovel. These tools encourage kids to dig, and usually they will find some kind of container to fill up… and then dump out. I find empty yogurt or sour cream containers accomplish this nicely! 

This activity has so many benefits. First, it requires the use of a lot of different muscles. Digging takes input from a child’s whole body. Filling a container requires precision, meaning they will use more of their fine more skills. Dumping sand or dirt or water out of a container also takes coordination, and it provides wonderful sensory input that is deeply engaging to a kids mind and body. 

Plus, digging in the dirt and sand exposes kids to microbes and other organisms that can actually improve the microbiome in their gut! That improves their physical health and can improve cognition as well. Win, win, win. 

4. Using outdoor tools

While the rake and shovel can provide lots of beneficial play, sometimes I like to just go outside and see what my kids come up with. For most of human history, people had to use their imagination or some ingenuity to create a toy out of natural materials. 

Head outside without providing human made toys and see what your kiddo comes up with. Might they complain a little? Sure! But necessity is the mother of invention. 

Today I saw a little boy create an entire galaxy of figurines fighting a battle in his backyard… out of rocks. This child has dozens if not hundreds of plastic figurines, but rocks were a fine substitute when fueled with the power of his imagination. 

5. Look at the Clouds

No matter where you live or how much “nature” you have access to, just about anyone can look up and see the sky. Laying on a blanket and telling stories about the figures in the sky is a sweet way to get everyone’s imaginations going. This is also a great way to hear how kids are processing their day to day experiences and the world around them; they will often tell stories about it. 

Spending more time in nature doesn’t have to feel difficult! The only threshold you need to cross is stepping out of your door. 

Keep it Simple, Smarty!

Going to the park, eating snack or lunch on the driveway, hanging out with your scooters at the skate park, exploring the weeds poking through the cracks in the pavement while you wait for the school bus—all of these count as time outside in nature! Bonus tip: did you know that if you have an iPhone, your camera has a built in plant identifier? 

Take a picture of the plant you want to ID, then a little star will pop up next to the “I” for more information. Click that and it will give you its best guess. This is a fun little scavenger hunt you can do in the wild. Like Pokémon Go—but for plants!

(Note: these are not always 100% accurate so do not ingest or consume any plant that you have not verified with 100% accuracy! Always do more research to confirm 🙂 )

Be encouraged—the time you are spending outside has more benefits than I can fit in this short blog post. And the time you spend outside doesn’t need to be fancy! Sometimes it’s the hours we spend outside in the sandbox or following our kids around while they pick up different rocks are times where some of the most important learning is happening. 

Happy playing!

(If you are interested in joining a nature based playgroups to connect with other families who value time outside in nature, you can check out the nature skills cooperative summer offerings on our website. You can also check out our free Facebook group meant to be a hub for families who value time in nature–actually or aspirationally @nature skills cooperative or connect with us on instagram)

For more information on the benefits of time in nature, check out some of these resources:

Balanced and Barefoot

Let Them Eat Dirt

There’s no Such Thing as Bad Weather

Free to Learn

The 1000 Hours Outside Podcast

And for more ideas for local outdoor family fun take a look at Milford Kids Thrive Outdoor family fun page