Playing in Nature

Categories: Articles

By Peggy Ashbrook

“Go outside and __________.”

When we complete this sentence in our heads, many of us insert the word “play.” Connecting young children with experiences in nature builds their confidence as they enter natural spaces, opening up more possibilities for play.

Throughout a city there are the small spaces where nature exists alongside human-built structures and larger areas where it is intentionally integrated. Outside and inside buildings, children engage with nature—playing on grass lawns, weedy patches, trees, and flower beds; observing ants in a sidewalk crack; digging in dirt to find worms; and getting rid of other unwanted small animal species that colonize indoors buildings and homes.

Learning about nature and natural phenomena involves engagement—seeing, smelling, hearing, and touching the nature around us—playing with nature. If we momentarily stop to observe, perhaps touch, and comment about what we notice, even brief observations in familiar landscapes are an introduction to living plants and animals.


Children are drawn to natural objects and living organisms. Going on a leaf scavenger hunt in an area where children can safely examine a variety of plant life introduces children to the concept of diversity of living organisms. The area can be a space tended by humans or be a more natural growth. As you and your child look around, ask questions like:

  • Which leaves are smaller than a fingernail and which are larger than a hand?
  • What are the textures of different leaves?

With more experiences playing outside children become familiar with some of the living organisms that exist in particular play areas, and locations become known for the life they support—the garden bed where the tulips they planted are sprouting, a fruit tree where bees visit flowers, a stepping stone where roly-polies can always be found underneath, or the edge of the playing field where grasshoppers live. Children and adults will become comfortable in “their” space.

Stephen R. Kellert, Ph.D., professor of social ecology at the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies and a pioneer in the field of biophilic design, posed questions in 2005 that led to research on children’s play in nature: “How much and what kind of contact with nature is necessary for healthy childhood development?” and “What are the effects during childhood of varying forms of direct, indirect, and symbolic contact with nature?” Kellert’s research (2017) found that “Most children’s contact with nature, including unforgettable times outdoors and the experience of special places in the natural world, occurs relatively close to home. Given that children do spend most of their time near their home and school, experiences there should provide opportunity for doing the things in which children already express interest—for example, climbing trees, exploring woods, and learning about the natural world through firsthand observation. Open spaces, parks, playgrounds, backyards, and schoolyards should provide more opportunities for unstructured play and exploration.”

When children play they develop language, executive functions, mathematics and spatial skills, scientific thinking, and social emotional development because they are mentally active, engaged, socially interactive, and building meaningful connections to their lives (Hassinger-Das and all, 2017).

In this photograph, a child stands at the edge of a parking lot, interacting with nature and getting to know the structure of plant leaves and sticks as she tears and manipulates them to create a pretend meal. A small amount of nature is the basis for this meaningful play.

Do you have a memory of an unforgettable experience with nature from your childhood?


10 Things Every Parent Should Know About Play by Laurel Bongiorno

The Case of Brain Science and Guided Play: A Developing Story by Brenna Hassinger-Das, Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, and Roberta Michnick Golinkoff. 2017. Young Children. 72(2): 45-50.

The Nature of Americans: Disconnection and Recommendations for Reconnection by Dr. Stephen R. Kellert, David J. Case, Dr. Daniel Escher, Dr. Daniel J. Witter, Dr. Jessica Mikels-Carrasco, and Phil T. Seng. DJ Case & Associates. 2017.

“Nature and Childhood Development” Chapter 3 in Building for Life: Designing and Understanding the Human-Nature Connection by Stephen R. Kellert, Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2005.