14 easy outdoor nature play ideas for bubs and kids

As parents, we know how important it is to get out of the house each day – for our kid’s sake, and our own! A trip to the café, a friend’s place, or the local playground all do wonders for our mental, physical, and emotional wellbeing. But what many people don’t realise, is that time in nature is really important for the development of our kids as well.

Increasingly, research is showing that outdoor play in nature is fundamental to healthy brain development, emotional balance, and social, physical, and behavioural growth in our kids. With the rise in ‘screen time’ from an early age, and more children growing up in urban areas, prioritising time outside is even more important. It’s also a great way to develop a love and care for the environment in our little ones.

Before you sigh and add ‘do outdoor nature play’ to your ever-growing parenting to-do list (we all know that list), fear not! Here are some quick and easy outdoor nature play ideas that you can slip into your next wander outside – in your backyard, at the beach or in the bush. Best of all, you don’t need any special equipment – just you, your little one, and nature’s playground!

Nature play ideas for under 2’s

Introducing the natural environment as early as possible, in an age-appropriate way, creates an important foundation and familiarity for bubs. Just remember to slip, slop, slap (or stay in the shade) when outdoors and never leave them unattended.

  1. Lie down and watch the clouds or birds in the sky (just avoid staring into the sun);
  1. Sit on the grass or sand and pass them things to inspect like leaves, bark, flowers, shells or stones – they can practice passing items from hand to hand and you can talk to them about the different textures, colours and shapes;
  1. Make up your own real-life ‘That’s Not My…’ story using 4 or 5 different leaves, flowers or shells and describing their characteristics;
  1. Play ‘peek-a-boo’ from behind a tree or bush;
  1. Encourage them to walk barefoot or crawl over grass or sand;
  1. Make music by tapping sticks together, drumming on a rock or tree trunk, or shaking a dry branch;
  1. Watch some critters at work – worms, ladybirds, ants, beetles, birds, butterflies, and beach critters are all fascinating to watch (just don’t touch unless you know it’s safe, and don’t disturb or destroy their homes). You could even pretend to be the critter you can see.

Nature play ideas for over 2’s

Once kids are confidently walking and talking, there are even more great options for outdoor nature play. In addition to the ideas above you could…

  1. Make up a scavenger hunt – tailor the items you ask for to suit their ability e.g. find an item of a certain colour, size, texture, number of items or by its starting letter;
  1. Stop and listen – close your eyes and listen for 10 seconds. Name all the things that you can hear (different birds and insects, water, rustling leaves etc.)
  1. Set up an obstacle course – lay sticks on the ground in a ladder formation for them to jump between, or end-to-end to use as a line to balance on. The obstacle course could include jumping, balancing, spinning, star jumps, and running to reach the chosen end point;
  1. Collect craft materials – there are lots of great art and craft activities that use natural materials like leaves, shells, seed pods, and sticks. Go hunting for items to bring home and add to your craft box;
  1. Guessing games – Ask your little one to close their eyes, then pass them something to feel (a leaf, flower, bark, sand, stone etc.) Without looking, they have to guess what they’re holding and describe it to you. Then swap and let them choose something for you to guess.
  1. Make up a poem, rhyme, song or story – get inspired by what’s around you and work together to make up a silly song, a rhyme or build up a story by taking turns to tell one line of the story each;
  1. Ask them “what’s the game?” – ultimately the best outdoor nature play is unstructured and where the kids are in control. To encourage them in their play, form a habit of asking “what’s the game?” when you’re outside and let their imagination run wild. They might end up building a fort, jumping leaf to leaf to escape hot lava, or creating a tiny village for the bugs. The magic really happens when they lose themselves in a game of their choosing, so don’t be afraid to just roll with it!

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Melissa Sellen

Mel holds a Master of Environmental Education and has worked as an educator for Planet Ark and the Nature Conservation Council of NSW, as well as State and Local Government. She has sat on the Executive of the Australian Association for Environmental Education (AAEE) NSW Chapter for the past 7 years and helped write the latest NSW Framework for Environmental Education. Mel is a mum to two lovely world-changers under 5 who help her put all her ideas into practice!

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