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©2018 by Homespun.

Nature Play

Updated: Jan 8, 2019

(NOTE: I have had this post ready to go for awhile, but have been so busy uploading and editing photos, that I have fallen behind in actually getting it posted. But, better late than never! The photos in this post are up in the Spring Mountains from late October/early November 2018.)

This past year has been a year of growth in mindset for me, as mother, homeschooler, and homemaker. I have intentionally spent a lot of time reading and researching personal growth/development, parenting, and homeschooling philosophies and disciplines. Really digging deep into what do I envision and desire as our family continues to grow and evolve. What are our goals? What are our rhythms and structures? What are our philosophies? Etc, etc...

I began delving deeper into many of the philosophies that I was acquainted with, but not yet deeply familiar, such as: Charlotte Mason, Waldorf, Montessori, Rewilding, Nature Schooling, Child-Led Learning, and more. So many lovely ways of raising and teaching your children! And, so many elements that I have always unknowingly incorporated into my lifestyle philosophy and practices already. But, I am enjoying learning how to mesh these into the parenting and homeschooling realms. We are definitely a nature-based family (at least I have always endeavored to raise them as such from the beginning), and I have always leaned towards the "crunchy-granola, hippie" lifestlye, being known as the go-to person for herbs and essential oils and natural remedies, amongst my circle.

How Did We Get Here

Unfortunately, one of the things that had slowly slipped out of our lives in the past couple of years was NATURE herself. I am not sure exactly where it started, but I think the frequent moving (every 5-6 months) between 2016-late 2017 was much to blame. We had a period of time in late 2016 through mid-2017, while we were living in our RV in Texas and then in Las Vegas, that we had so much wonderful outdoors and nature time. However, after we sold the RV, moved to New Mexico for six months, and then back to Las Vegas in October 2017, we fell out of spending so much time in nature. 2018 has been pretty much pure chaos, with our eldest, Caroline, having two major surgeries and having a rough and drawn out recovery from both that limited our ability to even leave the house (we are still in the recovery phase of her most recent one). And, MAN, have we felt the effects of not having nature in our lives this past year! I, especially, have felt it, mentally, energetically, and spiritually, needing at times to just go up into the mountains by myself for hours at a time to just sit and think in order to feel grounded again.

Nature is Essential for Our Well-Being

But, I also began to notice a change in our children to, that I am sure was and is directly connected to their reduced time in nature. The squabbling increased, the poor attitudes were increasing, there was beginning to be lost of competitiveness and arguing over toys, and then towards the middle of the year, it seemed play was nearly ceasing, as reliance on the iPads and TV became the only thing they would engage in. I will admit, the iPads and TV shows became a huge crutch for me this year too, especially during Caroline's first recovery phase, where she was completely immobile for four months, and could do nothing but lie on the couch in her full body cast all day. So, I suppose it is really all on my shoulders for allowing that to creep in to our lifestyle. But, honestly, I was at a loss as to how to entertain them all inside for months, because books and play dough and coloring will only entertain for so many hours a day.

And, so as I began really observing our children and not liking the changes I was beginning to see in them and in our lifestyle, I determined it was time I made a focused effort to reverse the negative effects that electronics were having on us all. And, so I began reading. And reading. And looking for answers. What I came to realize, was that really we just needed a return to our roots. A return to nature. To once again incorporate and honor Mother Earth and her rhythms in our lives. A return to simplicity. A return to stillness. Allow ourselves the space to breathe and realign our energies in all of the craziness and chaos of our lives in this metropolitan area.

Healthy Childhood

What do you remember about your childhood? Like me, you may fondly recall playing outdoors in natural settings, doing things like: 

  • building tree houses

  • building forts

  • catching frogs, butterflies, caterpillars, and fireflies  

  • splashing and swimming in creeks   

  • picking basketfuls of wildflowers     

  • daydreaming in a special hiding placed

  • digging holes “to China”

  • going on nature walks

  • working/playing in the vegetable and flower gardens

  • playing with our pets

  • playing tag or Capture the Flag with our siblings and/or friends

These activities are all nature play:  unstructured childhood play in “wild” areas, whether it is the vacant lot next door, the local neighborhood park, or the “back forty” of your farm. 

At its very best, nature play is not scheduled, planned, or led by adults, nor is it confined by grown-ups’ rules. Instead, it is open-ended, free-time exploration and recreation, without close adult supervision. Hours on end of playing and exploring outside, and being called in for lunch or dinner by a parent blowing the car horn or hollering from the porch for us. For many of us, this sort of nature play virtually defined our childhoods.

Childhood is Being Lost

Unfortunately, as Richard Louv, author and co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, points out, many factors are converging to make nature play increasingly rare in American childhoods, including:

  • Less children's access to unregulated green spaces where they can freely play

  • Growing parental fears of letting children play outdoors without close supervision (We have all probably heard of the "helicopter parent", right?)

  • The growing allure and availability of plugged-in play

  • Longer school days and more homework

  • The trend to over-schedule children in structured, adult-led activities

     The unhappy result is that most American children no longer enjoy regular nature play like you and I did. In fact, one study found that our children now spend an average of just 30 minutes per week in unstructured outdoor play. Say what?!?! That is barely FOUR minutes per day!! Contrast that with the fact that the average American two-year-old watches almost three hours of television daily.

Nature Play is Essential to a Child's Development

There is a growing body of research data about the multiple positive impacts of nature play on children’s social, emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being.  Richard Louv has done a great job of reviewing these benefits in his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods:  Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. We are losing childhood to electronic devices, computers, cellphones, and close-ended electronic toys, dampening and stalling their growth and development. It is mind-blowing that this is actually a thing these days. I mean, would you have ever thought that a physician would actually have to write a prescription for more outdoor play time? (Yes, that is becoming a thing these days! *mind blown*)

Instilling a Love of Nature in Our Children

Nature play has been found to be the most common influence on the development of adult conservation values. Now it is fading away. Without the lasting impacts of nature play, what will guide future generations of our children into cherishing the natural world?

Many people believe that increased amounts of formal environmental education might lead to more wise conservation behavior in our society. Unfortunately, research shows that the lasting conservation impacts of school-based environmental education are limited, at best. In fact, broader research finds that learning is not a prime determinant of most human behavior. Instead, many other factors drive our behavior, with our emotions and immediate needs often being the most powerful ones.

To achieve the conservation of our children's values, and for their emotional and physical well-being, I believe that we must find ways to put nature back into our children’s hearts, NOT just into their brains. Nature play is the key to this challenge. The virtual extinction of nature play is an unprecedented mutation of human childhood. We have unintentionally removed a Life Force that has been at the center of children’s physical, social, emotional, creative, and intellectual development throughout the history of humankind. Are you confident that nature play has been replaced in most children’s lives by equally valuable and positive influences? For myself and our family, I do not think so, and I am making a focused effort to change this.

Where We Are Beginning

The first step we have taken to restoring nature play, is to begin to understand it better. Good nature play requires land that is not too protected and is wild — at least in children’s eyes. This might be the “back forty” of a farm, a quiet corner in a local park, a small neighborhood creek or marsh, a vacant city lot, or just your own backyard. However large or small, the site must have elemental nature to play with and discover: things like rocks, dirt, trees, bugs, flowers, mud, and water. Equally important, kids must be free to dig, collect, climb, build, and hide there. This has been called “rough ground” — patches of land that adults do not much care about, but that kids can love and adopt as their own. It is not necessarily the size, but the freedom! For us, we are finding that "escaping" to the mountains above the Las Vegas valley or exploring in the Tule Springs Fossil Beds National Monument are our best bet for finding this type of environment in our area. We do prefer the mountains, however, because there are definitely no water sources down here in the valley!

It Is About Playing WITH Nature, Not Just In Nature

Outdoor, “child-centered” play is the goal: play that children themselves initiate, guide, change, or abandon. The very best nature play comes from the child, not from the adult! Ideally, there are no formal objectives and few rules for nature play. It is vital, though, that the play actively engages kids with nature and its elements; it is not just any play that happens outdoors. Putting your ping-pong table in the backyard is NOT nature play! Real nature play is catching tiny critters, collecting leaves and rocks, hiding in tall grass, digging for buried treasure, splashing in the creek, hiding amidst the shrubs, and climbing a tree as high as you dare.

Nearby Nature is the Key to Restoring Nature Play

In her research into the origins of personal conservation values, Louise Chawla wrote in Ibid, “The special places that stood out in memory, where people formed a first bond with the natural world, were always part of the regular rhythm of life...” (italics added). That is how many of us enjoyed nature play growing up: we played outdoors nearly every day, again and again, in good weather or bad.

This level of frequency may be the hardest aspect of nature play to restore ― since, for children, frequency requires proximity. If kids have to be hauled around in the family minivan in order to enjoy nature play, then it is not likely to happen often enough to fully impact their growth, development, and love of nature. Instead, we need to bring nature play back into our families’ yards, local green spaces, and school playgrounds — places they can reach on foot or by bicycle, day after day, to play and re-play. This is a challenge for us in Las Vegas, where houses are piled on top of each other with no green spaces, in general. But, we are finding ways to schedule in nature play on a regular basis.


One of the most recent additions to our weekly schedule is Free Forest School. We are so lucky to have a local chapter here in Las Vegas, and they have meet ups on Tuesdays and Fridays. We are loving the community and activities this provides, and I would encourage you to look for local chapters in your area. Check out the Free Forest School website for more information.

Look into a Waldorf-based or -inspired school or any other nature schools in your area for inspiration. Also, check out the American Academy of Pediatrics website for information on new screen time guidelines for children.

Books that I have read, or am currently reading on this subject:

More on this later, and how we are making changes in our home life and daily rhythm to reconnect with nature and preserve childhood! Have you encountered this in your own home? If so, what steps are you taking to reconnect and realign? I would love to hear from others on this subject! Hope your day is blessed!