De-stress your kids: The benefits of nature play

Outdoor play helps kids build skills and stay healthy

Outdoor play helps kids build skills and stay healthy

It’s no secret that today’s children lack adequate outdoor play experiences. What used to be normal, everyday outdoor play has been substituted with hours and hours of screen time or, adult-run team sports or at best, time spent on metal and plastic play structures.

In Japan there’s a practice called Shinrin-yoku, or forest-bathing. Both adults and children take time to enjoy the energy and clean air of a natural setting and just enjoy it. The results of these nature-rich experiences are reduced levels of stress and improved happiness and creativity.

Today early learning specialists are sounding the cry. “Kids need to spend more time playing in natural settings.”

But where are the trees, underbrush, rocks, streams and fields in which today’s children can explore and imagine? The answer is; they’re popping up everywhere. As adults realize the need for their children to play in natural settings, sterile playgrounds are being transformed into nature playgrounds using rocks, trees, logs, streams and other natural elements. With a minimum of expense, natural settings are put in place to enjoy.

READ MORE: Take a walk on the wild side with your kids

The results of playing in these natural play spaces has been astounding. Researchers say that when children play and learn in nature they do so with more engagement, imagination and cooperation than in more artificial settings. It’s as if nature provides kids with many of the same benefits as a healthy diet or enough sleep. It’s good for them.

Some of the Benefits of Nature Play

Physical: Active Play Provides

  • Strong muscle development
  • A boosted immune system
  • A sense of balance
  • Reduced risk of obesity
  • An improved appetite
  • Sensory stimuli
  • Improved energy levels

Social/Emotional Benefits

  • Improved observations skills
  • Increased thinking skills and ability to focus
  • Positive mood
  • Reduced anger and acting out behaviors
  • Improved self-confidence
  • Self-management skills

Character Traits

  • Increased creativity, imagination
  • Appreciation for the environment
  • Willingness to experiment, engage in healthy risk-taking
  • Improved social skills
  • Increased satisfaction, joy
  • Increased empathy and kindness

Most nature play is not directed by adults, but self-directed. Kids follow their own interests and engage at a higher level then when playing in more sterile environments. They may choose to float objects on the water and watch where they go. They may collect a variety of leaf specimens and compare them. They may build a structure using found objects such as branches and rocks. All the while they’re observing, predicting, and reasoning.

Nature play lends itself to imagination. They may build a home for the fairies who live in the woods or become king or queen of the land and build a castle. This kind of imaginative play is soothing to children and reduces stress levels.

Nature Play in Your Own Backyard

Here are some ways you can enhance outdoor play right in your own living area. Natural construction can take place even on a porch or balcony if a few props are provided—a sheet or blanket, a few rocks, sticks, pieces of string, or leaves.

Using your back yard play space, introduce trees or logs near a wall or fence line. Children can build against the walls in ever-changing construction projects.

READ MORE: Getting kids to bond with nature

Or, gather a mixture of natural objects for your children to use. Sticks, branches, bamboo, straw bales, cardboard boxes, rope and twine, tarps, leaves, pinecones, moss, acorns, or stumps. Children will create their own projects with these objects when they’re available.

Fairy Houses are fun outdoor play projects that can take many shapes. They may grow into fairy villages creating enchanted spaces and encouraging creative story narratives.

Don’t forget that water play is always a winner with kids. If you don’t have a stream running through your property, provide buckets or water stations where children can dip and pour, mix and create. A bit of mud at the end of a nature play session is easily cleaned up at bath time.

Search Out Nature Play Areas

Search your neighborhood, city or surrounding areas for natural settings in which to play. Parks often have lovely natural areas in addition to the swings and play structures we’re so used to using.

Entrance areas to hiking trails may offer a great play area or ask your local zoo or museum if they have a nature play area. Schools and public lands may provide the perfect natural setting.

Contact your local Audubon Society, or the National Wildlife Federation, for more ideas on finding or creating nature play areas.

Jan Pierce, M.Ed., is a retired teacher and a writer. She is the author of "Homegrown Readers" and "Homegrown Family Fun". Find Jan at

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