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We are passionate about nature play. It is evident in what we write, what we share, the training we deliver, the playgrounds we develop and in the educators that are part of our family day care service. So when I hear someone say that nature play is a fad or “the thing right now” I take it pretty personally! 

Nature play can mean different things to different people, but to me it is the opportunity for children (and adults!) to engage in authentic, meaningful ways with the natural environment. That natural environment will look different depending on your context. It does not necessarily equate to a “forest school”! If you are in a coastal area your natural environment may be the beach, dunes and grasslands. If you live rurally it may be dirt, scrub and gum trees.

This morning I spent a few hours in the backyard with my 5year old, 2year old and 8 month old. We spend a lot of time outdoors and I find that all three (and me!) are much more content outdoors. This morning we found a small moth on the side of our table and I helped Bodhi place his hand out, encouraging it to climb on. We watched as it fluttered on his hand. “His wings are so delicate”, he said. And I wondered how, at five, he knew what delicate was. Yet as I watched him for the next hour with this tiny moth crawling up his arms, on his back and in his hair, it became clear. He knows what delicate is because of moments like these. Moments of quiet, authentic engagement with the natural world. And it was then that I was certain, nature play is no fad, no “approach”, it simply is and always should be, for all children.

So why is it still considered a fad? Particularly in a country where no matter where you live there are natural environments. Our country has bush, beach, lake, creek, dirt, desert, rainforests, fields, gardens, mangroves, wetlands, mountains and more. And even if venturing into wild spaces is not an option for you (although it easily can be!) you can ensure that your immediate physical environment encourages children to engage with the natural world, 

The benefits of nature play and connectedness are undeniable and this morning as I watched my 5year old engage with a moth, my 2 year old follow a snail and my 8 month old playing with bark, rubbing her tiny fingers across it, it was just so clear how important nature is. 
Supporting nature play doesn’t mean that every thing needs to be made of wood or stones, it is about real connections. So, here are 7 ways to authentically engage in nature play:
  1. ​Go BAREFOOT - Otherwise known as Earthing, the practice of being barefoot has many health benefits and also enables children to get “feedback” from the ground, supporting motor development. Dirt and grass also feel great between your toes!
  2. Look for WILDLIFE – Even the most urban areas have wildlife such as snails, spiders, ants and birds. Look for wildlife together, ask questions and hypothesise 
  3. CLOUD watch - Lay on the grass on your back and watch the clouds. Many children love to describe what the clouds look like, conjuring up images of bunnies and dragons, while others may want to know what the clouds are made of. Cloud watching discussions are often magical
  4. Pick FLOWERS – my kids love picking flowers to put in a glass on our dining table before meals. It is becoming somewhat of a tradition, despite the fact that we are not green thumbs and don’t really have gardens! They still manage to find “flowers” and watching them find the beauty in what we adults call weeds, is enough to make me smile
  5. LISTEN - simply spending time outdoors with your eyes closed will uncover a range of natural sounds. We have done this and heard birds, bugs and even the trees
  6. COLLECT – My toddler is often referred to as “the collector” – she loves filling bags, boxes, baskets and trolleys with all sorts of treasures. In an attempt to harness this, we make collections of stones and shells and leaves. These are often used in games and play for weeks after! (reminder – teach children to only collect items that have fallen on the ground, not to remove from trees etc and to be mindful of creatures)
  7. Use TECHNOLOGY – Most nature based articles will encourage you to ditch technology in favour of nature, yet it is possible to use the two together in meaningful ways. As I heard Peter Gray put it once – digital technology is simply a tool of this generation, much like the bow and arrow would have been for early man. My son is fascinated with photography at the moment, so has taken a liking to using my digital SLR camera to photograph trees, leaves, birds and anything that takes his fancy. 

I would love to hear some of your favourite ways of engaging with the natural world!

By Nicole Halton
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This past weekend our family headed away for a few days of camping. It was everything that I was craving – peaceful, dirty, fresh, we had time to just be. But something happened that I wasn’t prepared for, something that caused me to reflect on my approach to parenting. My five year old was so excited to be camping again and I was relieved to be away from the lure of TV and the Wii. From the moment we arrived he was keen to “go exploring.” Unfortunately drizzling rain and the need to set up camp meant that our opportunity to go exploring on that first afternoon was limited.

Thankfully we awoke the next morning to sunny skies and shortly after breakfast we were able to explore. We headed to the river and climbed over rocks, looked for stones, sailed sticks down the rapids, spotted spring blossoms and listened for birds. We no sooner returned to camp and the pestering began “can we go exploring again? Pleeeeaaasse?????” With a baby to feed and a toddler who was “hungry mumma!” I promised we would go again in a little while. This clearly wasn’t good enough and he continued to drive us crazy until we decided that he could play in the trees beside our camp site. That might not sound like much, but considering the trees were on a steep embankment that led down to the river, it felt like a big deal. He was out of sight and we found ourselves checking on him every minute or two, worrying about him falling in the river (though only about 30cm deep, it is cold and he would panic!) or wandering off.

After awhile he began playing with the two children in the campsite next to ours, one slightly older and one slightly younger. Suddenly I was reminded of my own childhood, having adventures in the paddock behind our street at a very similar age, the older children looking after the younger ones and all of us banding together and keeping safe. The three children spent hours over the course of the weekend, climbing up and down the embankment, hanging from the trees and playing incredibly imaginative games, games of dragons and fairies and pirates. The TV and Wii were long forgotten and new friendships were formed. Every now and then I had this moment of “eek… what if someone has kidnapped him” a thought that I wish wasn’t even a reality, but I realised that I needed to let him be (although I definitely did my share of peeking and eavesdropping)

When the amazing Peter Gray came and spoke at our annual Unwrapping Conference this year I was captivated by his stories of “free range” childhoods. I have always advocated for this concept, but now that the reality was actually here… it was hard to let go. But I did, I let go enough to still be able to hear him. I let go enough to still be able to peer through the trees at him. I let go enough to let him feel free to play in a way that children only do when they are on their own. I let go just enough to realise that in letting go I was giving him the same amazing childhood that I had.


By Nicole Halton
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This image and quote says it all… perhaps the real question is “Why not outdoors?”

Part of what we do at Inspired EC is to design outdoor play environments. We aim to create environments that are so rich and engaging that no equipment is actually necessary. This approach stems from the experiences of Tash and myself. Many years ago we found ourselves working in a centre that was clearly on a journey. The indoor environment was one of the most engaging that I had seen at that time, the documentation of learning and project/play based program was strong and meaningful. As for the outdoor space…not so great! A very large space, it was predominantly wet-pour rubber softfall. One day while playing a game of hide and seek it became abundantly clear just how much the space was lacking – there was nowhere to hide!

Over the next few years, with a lot of vision, passion and hard work that outdoor play space evolved into one that is now coveted by other services and educators. It became an environment that requires nothing more. If no toys or equipment were bought out each day the children would still be engaged. This is what is so amazing about the outdoors. By allowing nature (plants, trees, grass, rocks, dirt…) to exist in our outdoor play environments, we open ourselves up to endless opportunities for play and exploration. 

– Nicole
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