Five Key Elements to Creating a Natural Play Space for Children

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

Children who spend time outside connecting with nature learn to problem solve in creative ways, develop responsibility and self-confidence, and have reduced levels of stress and fatigue. There’s a great article linked at the bottom of this post, so be sure to check it out, if you need more convincing that children and nature go together like peanut butter and jelly or mud pies and a summer day.

Children watering the plants in the natural play space
Watering the plants outside the entrance to our playground

Here at Children’s House Montessori School of Reston we LOVE nature. We have a beautiful outdoor space and over the years we have expanded our playground, included more natural elements, and encouraged exploration, discovery, and respect for the natural world. We work on our gardens regularly, and our students spend time outside almost every day, digging, climbing, balancing, creating, and quietly reflecting.

Our space is a combination of traditional play structures with natural exploration spaces. As a result, our children get the best of both worlds: a playground that looks like a playground and a playground that is, in actual fact, a woodland discovery zone.

Developing a Dirt-Friendly Mindset

Kids that play outside will get dirty. As parents and teachers, we need to be okay with that and have a plan in place to deal with the messes as they happen. A positive attitude towards dirt, and a proactive plan for dealing with it, will keep everyone relaxed. Don’t stress over mess!

  • If your child is going to be outside getting wet or muddy, have an old towel handy by the back door to wipe off muddy hands and feet. At our school we have a hand-washing bucket near the hose for rinsing off sandy or muddy hands before going inside and washing up with soap at the sink.
  • Have a change of clothes handy, so your child doesn’t have walk through the house with dirt on the seat of their pants, and save the nice clothes and new shoes for going out in public.
  • Keep the conversation going so that your child knows what is and what isn’t allowed. For example, at our school it’s okay to get dirty and we expect that clothes will get wet. But it’s not okay to purposefully cover oneself in mud or dump water over ones head. We want to encourage play and exploration, but supervision and boundaries are key.
Children playing a natural play space
Getting dirty is half the fun!

Getting Started

So how do we do it? How do we encourage outdoor exploration, and what are some of the key elements to creating a natural play space that is fun and safe? Here are our five key elements to creating a natural play space for children:

Key Element for a Natural Play Space #1: Water

Providing safe access to water is the most impactful way to encourage exploration and connection with nature. Children will play in the water all day long, if given the opportunity, so make sure that adding a water source to your outdoor space is at the top of your list.

Safety first: Never leave your child unsupervised around water. If there is water in a bucket, there should always be an adult present to monitor its use.

How can you add a water source to your play space?

  • Fill a tub or bucket with a hose or bring the water outside from an inside faucet.
  • Add plastic pitchers, jugs, cups, and containers to allow your child to carry the water around the play space.
  • Set your limit — tell your child you’ll fill the container two times or three times and then the water is done for the morning. At CHMS we want the children to have fun and play, but we also want to instill a respect for the source of their fun, and simply dumping water out onto the ground is wasteful.

What will they do with it?

  • Pour it on the ground and watch the water flow down the hill or create puddles
  • Water the plants
  • Mix it with soil, sticks, and bits of leaves to make “soup”
  • Splash in it
  • Get wet
  • Ask for more — they always want more!
child watering plants in a natural play space

Key Element for a Natural Play Space #2: Feed the Senses

Consider your child’s five senses when setting up your natural play space. Nature is full of opportunities to use our senses and sometimes, just drawing your child’s attention to what is around is all it takes.

  • Sight: plant a variety of colorful flowers, take a nature walk and look for the natural items in all the color of the rainbow, or “adopt a tree” in your neighborhood and observe it in all four season.
  • Sound: It can be as simple as adding a wind chime to your outdoor space. Got rhythm instruments, like sticks, shakers, and drums? Bring them outside and play them in the open air!
  • Touch: water, mud, dry sand, wet sand, rough bark, smooth stones, waxy leaves, delicate flower petals — the opportunities are all around you.
  • Taste: Got lots of space? Plant a small vegetable garden! Limited space? Grow some strawberries in a pot. No green thumbs in your family? Bring snack outside or indulge in more picnics. Food tastes better outside anyway!
  • Smell: Take time to stop and smell the roses. Literally. Did you ever notice the seasons have distinct smells? Go for a walk around your neighborhood or in a park and smell the freshly mowed grass, the fallen leaves, the snow in the air, and the earth after a spring shower.

Key Element for a Natural Play Space #3: Access to Tools

Kids gotta dig! Let them dig! And not with those cheap plastic sand toys, please. Real tools that really work are best. Go to your local gardening center and pick up some hand tools: shovels, forks, and trowels a couple of lightweight buckets and you’re in business. At our school we have shelves set up with containers and storage tubs where we store our outside tools. At the end of the day, the tools and toys are brought back to the storage area and made ready for the next day.

As with water play, tools should be monitored and proper instruction given first. We do not throw tools, dig in areas that we are not allowed to dig in, or use tools in an unsafe manner.

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

sweeping and raking in the a natural play space

Key Element for a Natural Play Space #4: Gross Motor Opportunities

Think about the many ways your child can use your outdoor space. Outside of the obvious (running), consider adding elements that encourage different types of gross motor activities and add them when you can. If space is limited, be on the lookout at nearby parks or natural areas and keep these in mind:

  • Climbing — trees with low branches, fences or low walls, fallen trees in the woods, over rocks. Children love to climb and it is only through climbing (and sometimes falling) that they learn their limitations and how to overcome them. Always supervise climbing play, but trust that your child will figure it out, get stronger, and learn to assess risk. You can’t become a strong climber, if you don’t climb. So, let them climb!
  • Balancing — fallen logs, rocks, low retaining walls, and stepping stones. Activities that require balancing improve a child’s core strength and control, resulting in fewer falls and less injuries. For children who are engaged in sports and other group activities, balancing builds confidence and improves skill.
  • Carrying, Pulling, Pushing — rocks, logs, buckets filled with dirt and water, and wagons or wheelbarrows. The best way to build strength is to use your muscles and this is especially important to young, growing bodies. Give your child heavy things to carry and let them help pull that wagon filled with mulch. Their muscles will thank you.
children climbing over trees in a natural play space
We love climbing over fallen trees when we take nature hikes!

Key Element for a Natural Play Space #5: Quiet Spaces

Ultimately, creating a natural play space for children is about giving children the opportunity to connect with nature. And one of the best ways to do that is to be still; to 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 invite quiet is an important element to creating a natural play space.

Being still gives children the opportunity to:

  • Listen to the sound of birdsong, the chattering of squirrels, and the rustling of leaves
  • Notice a hardworking ant, the changing color of a leaf, and the breeze in their hair
  • Catch their breath
  • Rest their muscles
natural play setting
Children often find themselves at the bottom of the playground, enjoying the peace and quiet.

Get Outside

The best way to start is just to start! Turn off the TV, put down your phone, and get your kids outside! Whether you have a huge backyard with ample space to create amazing opportunities for your child to explore and create, or you live in an apartment with a single flower pot on your balcony, children need to connect with nature. Get them outside, find natural space, and let them be kids!

You’re Invited to Play with Us!

If you’re local to Northern Virginia and the Reston-Herndon area, we’d like to invite you to come and play with us! Join us for open playground time on the first Friday of every month (except for January — that’s the second Friday)! Playtime is from 10:00 am to 11:00 am. Bring your toddler or preschooler and let them explore our playground: dig in the dirt, walk through the gardens, and sit on a bench and enjoy the fresh air. Drop us a message, give us a call at 703-481-6678, or just show up and say “hi!” We have an amazing playground and we want to share it with our community.

Our Open Play sessions start on Friday, September 6 and will run through the school year. We hope to see you soon!

Additional Resources:

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