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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

 It’s a lovely autumn day. The sun is shining, the birds are singing and butterflies are moving from plant to plant. Wind rustles through palm fronds and if your oldest child stands on their tip-tip-tip toes they can just see over the windowsill to the outside. They can see a gorgeous brown lizard sunning itself on a rock.  You are sitting on a comfy couch in your local community hall, surrounded by single use plastic toys discarded on the floor and a chaos of children running in circles, stepping on each other and generally just climbing the walls. You’re nursing your second cuppa and a half eaten chocolate cookie. Whilst you like the chance to chat with other mums, you find it all a little stressful.  You can see your child would much rather be outside and if we’re going to be honest, you probably would too. But playgroups are much easier to run inside, where children are pent up securely, aren’t they? And what about toys? Children need toys, don’t they?  With recent statistics showing that most children spend the majority of time indoors, on a flat screen or in front of a small screen, what children need is an outdoor environment they can explore, take ownership of, love and enjoy.

Family day care educator Kathy Springate with seedlings for the children
 It’s no longer a radical notion, with pioneering authors such as Richard Louv discussing the dire need for children to immerse themselves in outside play, and more recently articles running in The Huffington Post and Parenting Magazines almost daily discussing the benefits of outdoor environments for children. The difficult question then becomes where?  As a co-ordinator and family day care educator, I found it almost impossible to find a regular outdoor gathering with other educators or families in outdoor appropriate environments.  That is until I discovered the wonder of community gardens.  Often open only limited hours, community gardens are an incredible way to connect with your local community, volunteers and other families, as well as immerse children in the wonder of propagating seedlings, planting, weeding and harvesting.  Many towns and suburbs have them and they are filled with an abundance of friendly folk, lush green environments and the brilliance of an outdoor classroom. Most Community Gardens are fully fenced, making them a wonderful playground for parents who are learning to let go of their helicopter wings.  
The Oaklands Street Community Garden’s Garden Gathering was established with the particular aim of bringing families, carers, and family educators together – regardless of scheme- and allowing the children to immerse themselves in child-led gardening activities or general unstructured outdoor play. There is a myriad of things for the children to access- watering cans, gardening tools, seedlings, vegetable patches, fruit orchards, worm farms and compost bins.

There are mounds of soil, trees to climb and large areas to run. A curlew pair hover in the bushes by the wishing well and there is always a lizard, bird, beetle or butterfly to pique a child’s interest.

Family day care educator Juan Perez pulls the weed trolley while children navigate and push
 There are plans to incorporate fire work when winter comes in, and a pizza oven that is just waiting to be fired up again.  In the time that it’s been running, I’ve never heard anyone complain that they are bored, there is always as much or as little to do as the child wants, or can find.  There’s no mess of plastic toys to clean up and no craptivities– just an abundance of fresh air, smiles and exhausted children at the end of the session.   Find your nearest community garden, take the time to get to know them- you will find they are an amazing bunch of people that love the sound of children laughing amongst the trees, and are keen to pass the joys of gardening to the younger generation. You’ll find that community gardens really are the perfect place for playgroups!  ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~  Katchia Avenell is an Early Childhood Educator and Family Day Care Educator Mentor with Inspired Family Day Care

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

What is so special about being with 2 year olds? Many find this age group challenging, those terrible two’s..the temper tantrums that escalate out of control within minutes, the lack of verbal ability, the short attention span – often perceived to be worse in boys!! I believe this age group is the neglected group…in most EC centres they are either ‘lumped’ with the babies in environments that are not suitable for two year olds or they are all ‘lumped’ together in a group of only two year olds! Imagine having to spend the whole day, every day, very often in one room, with only people your own age group!

Spending time with a 31month old and a 26 month old in two very different ‘wild’ natural environments demonstrated all the best attributes of this age group. Curiosity, independence, capable, enthusiasm, adventurous, risk takers, self risk assessors, investigators, explorers, competent……an endless list! Not one tantrum, not a tear…….I feel this is the most misunderstood age and all they ask for is our time, our understanding, freedom and the opportunities to be allowed to experiment, explore and face appropriate challenges. Being outdoors offers so many of these opportunities and this is where these young children should be allowed to spend time to explore and investigate at their own pace. Lets celebrate those magic twos!
Wildspace – On the beach
Bodhi runs down the beach, stops, cautiously approaches the water, watches, splashes into the shallow waves while looking out to sea,observes  the waves roll in, and using his own judgement runs out of the water when he feels uncomfortable. As his confidence grows he challenged the waves to “come and get me!”

His body language demonstrates his love of the freedom and space available to him, the wind in his face, the ability to freely jump and move, adults who understand and are able to observe but not interfere either verbally or physically…..he did not need adult ‘interference’ he could DO IT!
Wildspace – In the bush
Oskar confidently leads the way, stops to investigate the Dandelions, picks up two sticks and experiments by hitting them together, then against a tree-stump, a burnt hollow tree, a living tree and a fallen branch. He uses the sticks to poke inside natural holes, one disappears into the tree-stump while the other is long enough to allow him to pick it out again.

He hears a noise, stops, assesses then looks to the adults for reassurance – he is lifted and watches the scrambler from the top of the tree-stump. Later he again hears the noise, looks around, steps off the track with the adults and once passed he confidently sets off again – he is in control….he could DO IT!

What an exciting day we had in Sydney today! Two very productive meetings as well as a site visit to a pre-school that has long been on our list of ‘must see’. We felt very privileged to meet up with the lovely Jennifer Kable of Progressive Early Childhood Education who shared Kinma Pre-school – and lunch-  with us.

When we walked in we immediately felt comfortable, some of the children gave us a passing glance and then continued with their self chosen activities, it was an environment of calm and purposeful play. The 26 children aged from 3 to 5 years have free access to both classrooms and the outdoor space which is seen as an extension of the indoor space – Educators didn’t feel that they needed to physically be in the classroom if there were children in it. We could see that children had been using all the spaces both inside and outside as there was evidence of constructive play but children’s play thoughts had obviously not been cut off with instructions to tidy up before moving to the next opportunity; there was time at the end of the day to do that. Having open access to the outdoors was helped by the design of the building with it’s large windows and open doors to the outside.

The garden was large and enclosed by open bar fencing allowing children to see beyond the fencing to the open bushland with its large trees and grassland. Vegetable gardens, a water pump children can operate which was unfortunately out of order (pumps and sand are not meant to go together – anybody know of a good sand resistant pump?) Lots of loose bits such as sticks, logs, stones, branches, wooden planks, sand, soil and water made this a magical environment for children who were able to change this space according to their needs. We had entered a genuine kindergarten – a children’s garden!

What did we see?
Children choosing when and where they want to eat their lunches.
Chickens with the run of the garden and of course they knew to hang around near children eating!
Lots of girls in the large sandpit – some in fairy wings – all fully engaged in what they were doing.
Two boys who had made up their own game using planks of wood – chanting and singing and when one fell the other immediately inquired if he was ok.
Mixtures of mulch, woodchips, fragrant flowers, soil and of course water in the mudkitchen.
One boy sitting inside on a large comfortable sofa reading a book.
A group of children playing with the play-dough.
Children on the swings, attempting to get the swings going by pumping little legs backwards and forwards.
A girl with a metal tray carrying a large stone sprinkled with soil and decorated with scented Jasmine.
A group of girls around a bucket of water – chatting to each other ….we don’t know what about but they all looked content and fully engaged in their activities.
A girl pushing a large wheelbarrow/trolley – intent on moving it forwards
Educators who were relaxed, happy to have a quick chat but fully there for the children.

Not only do the children have this amazing space, they also have access to the wild space surrounding the school. Jenny took us on one of the journeys the children take…..along a track, across a rock with a natural stream ‘cut’ into it and a little bubbling waterfall – the children can even get into the water!!! We could hear frogs and every now and again a little blue wren popped out, we could hear and see a variety of birds – what a motivational educational environment for young children – something we wish all children could have access to; in fact every child has the right to a motivational educational environment!

The big question…..what about risk? Answer – in more than 30 years no children have been bitten by snakes or funnel-web spiders, no children have got lost in the bush, no children have drowned in the creek, no children have sustained serious long term injuries -  there have been a few broken arms – Jenny’s son sustained a broken arm when he walked into a wall – and these broken arms were proudly celebrated by the injured child and enviously regarded by the others! In other words – LOW RISK!

Thank you very much, Jenny, for sharing this amazing children’s space with us and for allowing us in turn to share this with others. We are always here to help if Educators want more information on creating a naturalistic environment for children which we are passionate about.

Please visit Jenny on (
Written and photographed by Niki Buchan of Inspired EC

This morning a delightful friend handed my toddler a paper bag with some stones in the bottom. Emptying them out on the bed we carefully inspected the different sizes, textures and patterns – my delightful friend shared her fascination with the different stones and I think it was a little contagious! We bought them home with us and as we pulled into the driveway he said “I show Dadda my bag of rocks!”
He spent the next half an hour looking at, arranging and rearranging the rocks…completely engrossed.

It reminded me of the day in January when we rode our bikes down to Glenrock lagoon and spent the afternoon skipping stones and moving rocks around (in this photo he was determined to throw this big rock!) No playground required…

In Early Childhood services we spend so much time carefully selecting resources for their developmental appropriateness. We get caught up in colours, functions and safety features and in the mean time might be missing opportunities for children to explore through nature. A toy car can only ever really be a toy car, yet a rock could be a car, a person, the roof of a fairy house or just about anything… the only limit is the imagination!

Seeing my child so engaged with his bag of rocks reminded me of the importance of open ended, natural materials for encouraging a sense of wonder, curiosity and imagination. I am thinking we need to do some collecting and start a collection of loose parts for him to explore and create with in the back yard!

More about the simple joy of rocks…


At the end of last week I started flicking through an amazing book – Caring Spaces, Learning Places – Children’s Environments that Work by Jim Greenman. A section on adventure playgrounds caught my attention and I began doing a little Googling (how good is Google?!)

The following is an excerpt from
C. Th. Sørensen, a Danish landscape architect, noticed that children
preferred to play everywhere but in the playgrounds that he built.  In
1931, he imagined “A junk playground in which children could create and shape, dream and imagine a reality.” Why not give children in the city the same chances for play as those in the country?  His initial
ideas started the adventure playground movement.       
The first adventure playground opened in Emdrup, Denmark in 1943, during World War II.  In 1946, Lady Allen of Hurtwood visited Emdrup from England and was impressed with “junk playgrounds.” She brought the idea to London.  These “junk playgrounds” became known as “adventure playgrounds.” From then on the movement grew to provide adventure playgrounds for children with disabilities and included the formation of the Handicapped Adventure Playground          Association, currently known as Kidsactive.  Adventure playgrounds spread throughout Europe, particularly to Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the Netherlands, France and Germany.    

Ahhh…just the thought of this sort of outdoor space for children makes my knees a little weak! So much creativity, freedom and RISK – yay!!  But for all my googling I couldn’t find one in Australia. I found a few in the US, however discovered that many others had closed or been demolished due to increasing litigation issues and concerns – how sad…

Glamis Adventure Playground, London Image –
During my browsing I came across a great article from the US (which you can read here) the folllowing is a small excerpt:
When given age-appropriate challenges, children tend to take them very
seriously; in fact, the more obvious the risk is, the more cautiously a child will proceed. Adventure Playgrounds are a perfect case in point. While our paranoid and litigious society boasts only a handful, Europe has hundreds, offering kids the opportunity to play with fire, use handsaws and sail across 50-foot zip lines.  Denise Brown, Manager of the Berkeley Adventure Playground in California (pictured right), told NPR in an interview:

What we like to say is that there are no hidden risks in the
playground. Even a young child walking through the playground gates can look around and tell that it’s a different type of playground, and there are sticks and boards and nails and rocks and things that they need to watch out for.
In her experience, there are fewer injuries on Adventure Playgrounds than at standard U.S. playgrounds. At Kolle 37, an Adventure Playground in Berlin where kids can build their own three-story forts with wood and nails, two children have broken bones and a couple have stepped on nails over the course of five years

Berkeley Adventure Playground, California (image courtesy
I’d love to know what people think of adventure playgrounds… and I would love to hear if anyone knows of any in Australia – I want to go there! If all else fails, looks like a trip to Europe is in order – I would love to see how these playgrounds work…and have a play myself!
Berkeley Adventure Playground (image courtesy www/

What’s worse than watching the clock tick by ever so slowly on a Friday afternoon? Having 15 pre-schoolers stuck inside going crazy while it ticks by! This is what happened to me last Friday afternoon and I struggled to come up with ideas. We ended up playing hide and seek, sleeping dogs (or as the kids call it – dead dogs!) kangaroo skippyroo and freeze. We managed to survive the afternoon and actually have a pretty good time, but it got me thinking about things to do on rainy days…

·         Put the clear tunnel off the verandah and let the kids lie in it and watch the rain (our kids love this, but its best for light rain!
)\·         Grab gumboots and an umbrella and go for a rainwalk around the yard
·         Make cubbies using odds and ends·         Bring some of the large foam shapes and gym mats inside and create an obstacle course indoorsI did some browsing of some of my favourite blogs and found this great article on let the children play –’t wait to try this one…Would love to hear some different rainy day ideas – how do you “embrace” the wet weather, rather than letting it ruin the program?