Playful Parenting: Bringing Play to Every Day

Playful Parenting: Bringing Play to Every Day

Playing in Nature: Simple, Fun and Important for Your Child’s Growth

Studying a caterpillar’s path on the sidewalk, piling sticks to make a fort in the woods, making a crown out of dandelions, dredging a moat around a sandcastle at the beach.

This is nature play: Simple activities that nonetheless have a powerful impact on a child’s development.

Playing in nature creates endless possibilities to engage in open-ended, child-directed activities – the type of play we embrace at Minnesota Children’s Museum. When kids lead the way and play with materials that don’t have a pre-defined role, they experience a special sense of freedom and their imaginations soar.

“Nature helps kids be healthier, happier, smarter and better stewards of the environment,” said Cathy Jordan, the director of research at the Children and Nature Network and previously a professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota.

Nature play doesn’t necessarily require a trek into the woods. Nature is simply the presence of natural elements, whether it’s a flower in a pot on a windowsill, the city park closest to your home or a wooded area.

Why is nature play important?

Play in nature supports many types of development.

“When kids have regular opportunities for nature play, they’re getting the benefits of play,” Jordan said. “And then there are all of these benefits of nature for cognitive function and emotional function.”

Often, adults and parents have a “gut sense” that nature is good for children, but don’t fully understand why. Exposure to nature has a positive impact on children’s mental, emotional and physical well-being. It encourages social-emotional learning and supports the normal circadian rhythm of cortisol — humans’ primary stress hormone.

Research shows that being outside supports brain development and function. Spending time in nature has been shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, ADHD and general trauma. And it can help strengthen children’s eyesight by exposing them to daylight and encouraging distance vision.

Outdoor play builds confidence and large motor skills through movements like running, jumping and climbing. It also provides opportunities for children to explore safe risk-taking and develop problem-solving skills.

For example, if a child wants to cross a small stream, they first need to come up with a plan, such as using a log as a bridge. They’ll need to gather the log and figure out how to secure it across the top. Maybe they are afraid of falling into the stream. They’ll have to use big motor skills and show confidence and bravery as they balance along to the other side.

While this example seems simple, it shows just how powerful nature play can be. “It takes a change in perception and commitment to reap the benefits of nature play,” Jordan said.

Breaking down barriers

While the benefits of nature play are obvious, questions often arise around inequities in access. ZIP code, social-economic status, race and access to transportation all play a role in how accessible natural spaces are for an individual. These inequities are particularly prevalent for those living in urban areas.

National advocacy groups say that everyone should have access to an outdoor green space within a 10-minute walk of their home. This goal is largely being met in the core Twin Cities area thanks, in part, to the addition of more parks in St. Paul throughout the last decade, as well as the Minneapolis Parks Department’s 2021 renewed focus on equity. But this isn’t the case for all cities.

On a broader level, the State of Minnesota has drafted a “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights” which says, “We believe that each and every Minnesota child is entitled to experience outdoor recreational activities and discover the natural environment regardless of where they live, learn or play.”

Beyond not living near a public green space, questions about transportation also remain prevalent. If children don’t live in an area with natural spaces readily available for them, are we as a society doing everything we can to get them the access they need?

“Do we have a public transportation system that would get folks who don’t have nature in their immediate neighborhood to a safe, high-quality park?” Jordan asked. “No, not really.”

Equigenic Effect

The “Equigenic Effect” states that children who are from the least economically advantaged background benefit the most from nature play, compared to their more advantaged peers.

Considering this idea alongside the factors that lead to inequitable access to nature, it becomes clear that the children who most need time outside often face the most barriers to getting it.

With this knowledge, equitable access to nature and play could begin to address gaps in things like educational achievement and health.

Three ideas to bring nature to your family’s day

  • Take a walk as a family. While on a walk – whether it’s in a wooded area or along a street – encourage children to engage with nature. Pick up a leaf from the sidewalk and inspect its veins. Notice as many naturally occurring shapes or colors you can along the way. Carry a stick and imagine it’s a magic wand or a big pencil. The opportunities are endless.
  • Play in a natural space without toys or equipment. When children are given the opportunity to play without being told how, we see more progress in their thinking and learning. A pile of sticks, a creek of water or a patch of flowers acts as pieces for loose parts play, leaving the game up to their imagination. Strive for child-lead and parent-supported play, meaning that adults engage in the play, but don’t direct the process or the outcome.
  • Bring natural materials inside. If the weather isn’t cooperating with your nature play timeline, bring the materials indoors. Forts, art and even stews can be created by simply gathering and supplying children with a few twigs, leaves and grass. This idea can be taken one step further by creating an indoor, or outdoor, sensory bin filled with dirt, sand and rocks.

“Playing in dirt is not unhealthy,” Jordan said. “Some laundry is worth it in terms of the benefits [of nature play].”

For more resources on nature play, check out:


This article was written for Minnesota Children’s Museum by Molly McFadden.

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