23 April 2012

Benefits of Nature Play

By: Laura Trotta (BEng (Environmental), MSc(Environmental Chemistry))


Photo Source: Narelle Debenham, NaturedKids

Nature play is lacking or sadly absent for many children of today. Increased urbanisation, smaller backyards, parents working longer hours with lengthy commutes, higher electronic screen times and tight schedules of organised activities have all contributed to making the outdoors a restricted place for our young ones.

Parents have the ability to give their children the outside playing opportunities and free play time they possibly enjoyed as a child.

Children are healthier and happier when they have the opportunity to play outside every day. A recent study conducted by the University of Western Australia reported the following positive benefits of nature play1:

  • A decreased risk of children being overweight when more nature is present in their neighbourhood.
  • Playing in natural environments assists with building children’s motor skills.
  • Nature contact enhances children’s learning and development including, but not limited to, children’s personality development, cognitive functioning, attitude and school behaviour.
  • Contact with nature, especially during middle childhood, has an important role to play in children’s mental health. 
  • Children’s manage stress better when they have more contact with nature. 
  • Time in nature assists the performance of children with ADHD.
  • Children displaying delinquent behaviour benefit from nature-based programs such as wilderness camps.


Photo Source: Narelle Debenham, NaturedKids

Teacher, nature playgroup facilitator and mother of three, Narelle Debenham runs NaturedKids an outdoor program for babies to five year-olds and their families to explore and connect with nature in their local area. Narelle also provides training for adults to inspire nature play.

She passionately believes "when regularly immersed in their natural environment, children’s involvement in nature during their formative years guarantees eco-literacy, care for our natural world and environmental sustainability."

Narelle encourages parents to introduce their babies from just a few months old to nature-based activities in the back yard and offers the following nature play ideas for children to enjoy.


  • Make worm stew (mud pies).
  • Feel moss, leaves, feathers and other textures.
  • Tickle their cheek or tummy with a flower or feather.
  • Walk bare-footed.
  • Float petals in a bowl of water for a beautiful swirling water play.
  • Read stories or enjoy family meals outside.


  • Make daisy chains or put buttercups under their chin.
  • Play drums. Put a stick inside a large gumnut to make a drumstick and turn some pots upside down for drums.
  • Lie on your back under a tree to look at its canopy.
  • Lie on tummies to sniff the grass and look for creatures in the “grass jungle’’.
  • Make a dinosaur garden: use plastic dinosaurs, grab a potting tray and make your dinosaurs a prehistoric garden with loose materials from the yard.
  • Plant a vegetable garden and tend it together.
  • Look at raindrops on nasturtium leaves, with tiny magnifying glasses, and roll the drop carefully around the leaf without letting it fall off.
  • Make a bird’s breakfast. Grow sunflowers along the fence and then watch when the cockies and parrots come along to eat them.
  • Grow sunflowers in a circle then tie their heads together to make a cubby.
  • Collect leaves, feathers, seed pods and other natural items from the yard or while on a walk. Put them in a dish or bowl near the front door to create a nature plate to remind visitors of nature.
  • Don’t toss your child’s first, or outgrown shoes, away. Instead, keep the memories alive by planting a succulent or other small plant in the shoe and using it as garden art.
  • Using a stick, scratch your child’s name, a smiley face, noughts and crosses or other shapes in the soil.
  • Let children collect and play with sticks to build an elf or fairy cubby or a home for their small toys.
  • Create a collage on the ground (no glue), using leaves, twigs, flowers and other items from nature.
  • Fly a kite.
  • Find a place to lie under a tree or in a secret place to close your eyes and focus on sounds. Ask children to respond to sounds. For instance, how do they make you feel? This can lead to poetry or discussion on the effect of sounds in a city, why animals use sound and so on.
  • Talk about smells as you walk together to raise awareness of the subtleties and effects on feelings.
  • Grow herbs, make potpourri and explore why and how plants smell.
  • Allow children to make their own mini-landscapes. Encourage them to consider terrain, vegetation, rivers, drainage and so on. The landscape could be modelled on an imaginary place, a place from a story or a real place and could include toys.
  • Put on a coat, grab an umbrella and go outside in the rain. Explore how things change in the garden when they are wet and have fun with the puddles.
  • Go outside at night and look at the stars and moon.
  • Plant seeds or seedlings and, armed with childsized gardening  tools, give children the responsibility to care for their garden.
  • Read outdoor-themed stories outdoors.

So what are you waiting for? Grab your kids and head outside and you too will reap the benefits nature has to offer.


1. Martin, Karen, Dr (Feb 2011), The University of Western Australia, Putting Nature Back Into Nurture: The Benefits of Nature for Children.

About the Author: Laura Trotta (BEng (Environmental), MSc (Environmental Science)) is an eco mum, environmental engineer and founder of Sustainababy. She lives in regional South Australia with her husband Paul and son Matthew. Thank you to Narelle Debenham of NaturedKids for contributing to this article.

CATEGORY: nature play, benefits, child, toddler, baby | POSTED BY: Meg Supel |