11 Ways to Help Kids Explore Nature Through Play

Nature play is fantastic for the body, mind, and soul!

Published April 4, 2023
Mom and daughter hiking across river

Warm weather and longer daytime hours mean ample opportunities for outdoor play. Unfortunately, simply saying the words "go play outside" doesn't seem to be as effective as it was in our childhoods.

How do you make nature play exciting? Try some engaging activities to get kids more interested. Here are some ways to make excitement bloom and make natural playgrounds your kids' new favorite places to hang out!

What Is Nature Play & Why Is It Important?

Nature play isn't really a new phenomenon, as kids have been playing outside since the beginning of time. However, the focus of nature play in recent years is a shift away from outdoor play on metal and plastic playgrounds and a move towards more exposure to and interaction with the natural outdoor environment.

Why is it important? There are a few reasons. Serotonin, otherwise known as the happiness hormone, is released when we go out in the sun. This makes nature play quite the joyful activity. However, this is simply the tip of the iceberg. Research from a nature play study in Frontiers in Psychology shows that playing in natural environments aids in a child's cognitive, social-emotional, and motor development. It also provides both sensory and interactive activities that help kids better interpret the world.

According to the study, "Nature-based environments function as a play partner that helps children to transform the perceptual world into a conceptual world, because it diversifies play, is sensory rich and it plays back." Best of all, the opportunities for imaginative play are endless and these natural spaces are everywhere!

Playing in Nature Starts With Basic Activities

Of course, some of the easiest ways to implement nature play are through activities that have been around since the dawn of time. Running, jumping, climbing, and chasing are all fantastic for building gross motor skills and getting out energy. The same goes for water sports like swimming, kayaking, and stand-up paddle boarding.

However, if you want your kids to get the most out of natural play areas or they aren't excited about traditional outdoor activities, you might need to get creative. Here are some fun ways to help them enjoy nature play!

Nature Play Activities for Kids of All Ages

You can make the most of your time outside with some simple activities that encourage kids to engage their senses and learn while having fun. We love these ideas for helping kids to explore nature.

Try a Nature Scavenger Hunt

Nearly every community has some sort of walking trail nearby. Get your kid's bodies and minds moving by going on an interactive hike! Think about the flora and fauna in your area and the time of year. What might your children spot on a scavenger hunt? After you make a mental note of these items, create a scavenger hunt list using one of our free printable pages. Examples of items to include are:

  • Squirrels
  • Deer
  • Ducks
  • Flowers
  • Butterflies
  • Bees
  • Boulders
  • Trees
  • Bridges
  • Waterfalls
  • Lakes (or other bodies of water)
  • Logs
  • Acorns
  • Animal prints
  • Mushrooms

If you're making this list for older kids, make it more challenging. Have them look for a boulder that's as big as a car, a tree taller than a house, and specific flower types that grow in your region. You can also have them look for different textures and colors throughout your adventure.

Build Sandcastles

Beaches are always best for this activity, but there are also plenty of parks that have sandboxes as well. Remember, just like when you're at the seaside, this activity is only as good as the tools you have available. Thus, find some affordable beach toys, some construction toys, and sand shovels. Parents can also make a fun site for their little paleontologist by purchasing a dinosaur excavation kit!

If parents don't have a park nearby, they can also buy some play sand and a cheap blow up pool to create their own sandbox at home. Just cover the play space when your kids are done because bugs and animals like to sneak in.

Create Jurassic Park

Grab your best dinosaur toys, a large plastic basin, and have your kids gather natural materials for their ancient world! Dirt, sand, rocks and pebbles, stick, plants, and flowers are all items that could have been found in the time of these prehistoric monsters. Parents can also keep their avocado rinds to serve as dinosaur egg shells and use small tupperware containers to make small lakes in the space.

Capture the Moment

Help your child get a different view of the world by giving them a camera! They can get up close and personal with nature or they can take a wider look at what is right in front of them. Parents can snag kids cameras for $30 to $50 at Target, Walmart, or on Amazon. This can also be a great activity to pair with your scavenger hunt.

Dad and daughter taking photo of hot spring in Yellowstone

Become a Park Ranger for a Day

With over 400 national parks across the nation, there are plenty of spaces for parents and kids to explore! Better yet, hundreds of these parks have Junior Ranger programs that give kids an immersive experience while in these natural play areas. Your kids can become a junior:

  • Park Explorer
  • Spaceflight Explorer
  • Angler
  • Cave Scientist
  • Archeologist
  • Paleontologist
  • Underwater Explorer
  • Wildland Firefighter

These are just a handful of the many programs that the National Park Service offers to young kids. Not only are these fantastic opportunities to explore our nation's natural playgrounds, but they can also serve as a wonderful learning moments that can even spark your child's interest in certain career paths for the future.

Craft Flower Crowns

Flower crowns can be an excellent accessory for imaginative play, and they can give your kids the chance to explore nature at the same time. Take your little ones to a local park and have them pick wildflowers and greenery to make their crowns. Make sure that they pick these plants at the base of the stem. The only other supplies you will need are a plain headband and floral tape.

Once they have found their finest florets, simply adhere your flowers to the headband using the floral tape. These can be as simple or as intricate as they would like!

Grow a Ladybug Garden

Did you know ladybugs protect our crops? Their food is the bugs that normally eat plants. These little ladies are not just good looking, they're beneficial too! Another wonderful nature play activity for kids is a ladybug garden. Kids can watch their ladybugs grow and then release them when they're fully grown. Pair this with the book The Life Cycle of a Ladybug and you have a superb nature-inspired learning activity.

Find Out Why Geology Rocks

For the folks who live in Arkansas, Crater of Diamonds State Park brings big promises of riches to those young and old! However, there are plenty of other spots across the country where you can search for precious gems. And even if you don't live in one of these lucky places, searching for fun rocks and stones can lead to some exciting discoveries.

If you want to make this activity even more fun, buy your kids their very own rock tumbler so that they can turn their rocks into polished stones. They can use the rocks they find in nature and the options included in the kit. You can also purchase rock polisher foam to give them some extra shine!

Boys studying cool rock with magnifying glass

Go Stargazing

When was the last time you slowed down to the admire the night's sky? Stargazing is a spectacular evening activity for kids that parents can pair with a campfire and roasting marshmallows. Start on your stellar search for stars with the big and little dippers. For more tips, check out the American Museum of Natural History's "A Kid's Guide to Stargazing"!

Visit an Arboretum

Arboretums are beautiful places to explore. They have plants, trees, flowers, water sources, and even fun exhibits for each season. These garden centers also offer after-school programs, summer school classes, and free STEM lessons for kids and parents to enjoy! These lessons explore why nature is so extraordinary and can make your visits truly immersive.

Set Up a Natural Play Area in Your Own Backyard

You can also make nature more enticing by creating play spaces using natural materials in your own backyard. Create simple obstacle courses with natural items like tree stumps or large rocks. Plant a sensory garden with kid-safe plants that little ones can smell and touch, or set up an adventure pathway through the backyard with stepping stones that leads kids around plants, trees, or other natural features. Or, just make the backyard more magical with items like wind chimes or balancing logs.

Make Sure Your Kids Stay Safe During Nature Play

The world is a wonderful place to explore, but while enjoying the natural playgrounds in your community, make sure that your kids are staying safe.

  • First, always wear sunscreen on exposed skin and reapply as directed on the bottle. We recommend getting some UPF clothing for the summer as well. For those who don't know, these are garments that have sun protection built right in!
  • Next, make sure that your kids are wearing the proper footwear. You want sneakers, preferably ones that support your child's ankles like a hiking boot. When you're off the beaten path, you never know what kind of terrain you might find, and the right shoe can help to prevent falls and limit injuries when these instances occur.
  • Finally, don't forget the bug spray and to stay hydrated throughout your time outdoors.

Explore Nature Together & Help Kids Reap the Benefits

There are so many benefits to playing in nature. Help kids learn and explore the natural world by making it fun and exciting. Chances are, the whole family will be better because of the time spent in the great outdoors!

11 Ways to Help Kids Explore Nature Through Play