Let Kids Be Kids: Using Adventure and Nature to Bring Back Children’s Play

It is a disappointing thing to see new playgrounds developed in city spaces sit there empty each day, or to walk in the park and hear no laughter. What is missing here is not the children per se, but materials and environments that create challenge, imagination, and creativity that make children want to play outdoors. The absence of such play environments is not only influencing the quantity and quality of children’s play, but also affecting children’s health and well-being. As adults, we need to support children in learning to enjoy what free play in the outdoors has to offer. We need to inspire imaginations, creative minds, and capable bodies. To do this, we can look toward two simple things: nature and adventure.

What’s Happening to Children’s Play?

Outdoor play is a necessary part of children’s development and is considered essential for children’s play and learning. Playing outdoors provides unique opportunities for learning that the indoor environment cannot offer. For example, children engage in higher levels of creativity, imagination, inventiveness, physical activity, language, and curiosity. Most importantly, they are given the opportunity to play freely. Despite this knowledge, outdoor play has been steadily decreasing for North American children.

When we look at why this disappearance of free play is happening, we realize that there are many factors that contribute to the lack of play. There are increases in structured play activities, an emergence of technology-based play objects, higher concerns related to safety and risk, adult control over children’s play activities, academically oriented schools, and an overall disregard for the value of play. More often than not, we see children engaged in a summer filled with structured sports activities or stuck inside with gaming systems and cell phones. We hear adults saying “don’t pick up the sticks!” “don’t go too far!” and “be careful!”. We know that schools are decreasing recess time or taking it away all together.

Unfortunately, it is all too common that today’s society has an overall disregard for the value of play and how important it is for children of all ages. It is ultimately these factors that are placing a barrier between children and their right to play freely in the outdoors.

The inability to cross over this barrier is affecting children in many areas of development. For example, there are increases in anxiety and depression at younger ages as well as difficulties with emotional regulation and self-control. Increases in physical conditions such as diabetes, obesity, and asthma are becoming more apparent in young children and childhood disorders such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and obsessive-compulsive disorder are more frequently diagnosed. Children who do not have access to outdoor play will miss out on the many benefits that free play in the natural environment has to offer toward their growth.

Why The Decrease in Free Play - Bring Back Children’s Play

The Importance of Free Play in the Outdoors

When children are engaged in free play in the outdoors, they are provided opportunities for freedom, choice, and fewer routines. In free play, there is no adult direction or control, so children are able to play how they want to play. When children are given such freedom to play, they are more likely to engage in higher levels of social interaction, cognitive skills such as decision-making and reasoning, empathy, and physical activity. In turn, they are less likely to become inattentive, anxious, or depressed and unhealthy.

The Benefits of Outdoor Free Play - Bring Back Children’s Play

The outdoor environment in particular has many benefits. A natural green space allows children to continuously explore ways to use materials, discover the varied environment, and create their own play experiences. The outdoor environment is not a man-made area and, therefore, is diverse and timeless. Children who play outdoors have heightened senses and emotions from the ever-changing topography and the rich stimuli that a natural space affords. This is how children learn – through experience: by seeing, feeling, touching, and hearing. The outdoor environment is a blank canvas on which children are able to place their own thoughts, wonders, and creations.

The Loose Parts Movement for Bringing Back Play

So what can be done now? After this discussion of the importance of free play in the outdoors you may be wondering how you can bring back play for children in your life. There are two things to support you in doing so: nature and adventure. What you are going to need to do is reintroduce adventure back into children’s outdoor play. To accomplish this, you can use loose parts.

Loose parts are play objects and materials that are open-ended, manipulative, moveable, and non-dictated. This means that children can use the materials in a variety of ways and there is no suggested way or “story” behind these materials. Loose parts allow children to act upon their environment the way that they want, rather than their imaginations and creativity being predetermined by the materials.

Examples of loose parts are items such as tires, logs, sticks, fabric, rope, and rocks. Loose parts can either be synthetic materials or materials that are commonly found in a natural outdoor environment. Loose parts spark children’s curiosity, which then leads to exploration and discovery. For example, if a child is provided with rope, tarp, and wooden pieces, she will become curious about what the materials are and how to use them. She will then begin to explore the materials in different ways through her imagination and creativity. This leads to discovering that the materials can do many things. This process of curiosity, exploration, and discovery is ultimately what leads to play and learning.

Where Can I Find Loose Parts?

You can find loose parts in many places, and they are often free!

  • Parks, forests, and natural spaces

  • Thrift stores

  • Yard sales

  • Hardware stores

  • Fabric stores

  • Local dairy suppliers

  • Grocery stores

  • Your own recycling bin

Here is a loose parts list that will inspire you to get out there and collect your own:

What Are Loose Parts - Bring Back Children’s Play

To support children in loving play again, it is important that we create environments and include materials that are fun, engaging, and challenging. If an environment or an object is too easy, children will view it as boring. To reintroduce adventure and free play to your children, consider using loose parts. When loose parts are paired with the outdoors, it will lift children’s spirits, make them love playing again, and ultimately make them happier and healthier.


3 preschoolers running through sprinkler in backyard

Sprinkler fun

We have our snacks on the deck, and our lunch on a big blanket under the trees. The kids love eating their lunch outside, and I love how easy clean-up is when we’re done.

I normally pile a tray up with sandwiches, drinks, fruits/veggies/cheese etc and carry it out to the blanket under the tree, but last night, I found a great idea over at Michelle’s Charm World. I can’t wait to try it. You load up individual ice-cube trays with veggies, cheese, berries, plain pasta, meat etc., and let each child carry their own lunch tray to the picnic blanket. Brilliant! Thanks, Michelle!

9 toddlers and preschoolers eating lunch on blanket in backyard

Picnic under the trees

Outside is where we want to play when the weather co-operates. Winter is too long to not make the most of the nice weather when it’s here. There’s a ton of fun to be had in the yard, and the hooligans like it best when we keep the play simple and unstructured.

preschoolers drawing with chalk on brown metal fence

This fence is great for chalking on or painting with water.

toddlers walking in fall leaf labyrinth in backyard

In the fall, we come up with all kinds of cool and creative ways to play in the leaves.

preschooler drawing with chalk on a stone

We have our basic outdoor art supplies like chalk, spray bottles, homemade finger-paints, paintbrushes etc,

And a huge collection of beach stones that we do all kinds of things with.

kids painting on stones in backyard

Water play is always a huge hit.

boy in bathing suit sliding on tarp in backyard

and we muck around making concoctions

…and the kids love any kind of muddy activity. Below, the kids are troweling bricks with mud, and stacking them.

Check out our mobile mud pit!

Kids playing with a wheelbarrow full of mud

Homemade Water Wall for Kids

Our homemade water wall provides hours of entertainment

We are fortunate to have a good-sized back yard, and our neighborhood backs on to a ravine and forest. The kids refer to this area as “the jungle”. In the spring, before the undergrowth gets too high, we spend a lot of time exploring, hiking and “rock-climbing” in the jungle.

toddlers climbing over a log

The playhouse , the tire swing and the sandbox are where the children spend most of their time, playing make-believe, getting messy, and having good-old-fashioned fun.

preschoolers climbing ladder to playhouse

On a hot day, a rubber boat filled with water at the bottom of the slide provides a whole day of fun.

organized sandbox

So many hours are spent here in our sandox, digging, building, working together, and problem solving.

preschoolers on tire swing

We are also blessed to have a pond in our backyard.

It’s small but it provides us with countless hours of entertainment, and opportunities for learning.

preschoolers sitting around pond

The children watch the fish and get excited when they discover that the fish have had babies. They learn about life-cycles as we watch tadpoles develop into toads every spring, they scoop out algae, they hunt for snails, and they observe the birds and dragonflies that come for a drink.

preschoolers touching toad from backyard pond

preschool boys kneeling beside pond

The pond is a wonderful feature of our yard; I’m so thankful that we have it. It’s a place to splash your feet on a hot day…

little girl splashing feet in backyard pond

…or to sit and quietly reflect with a friend.

preschool boy red shirt, preschool girl pink shirt, sitting beside backyard pond

Thanks so much for touring “our big backyard” with me. It’s actually been quite a nostalgic little journey for me. Please feel free to share pictures of your own outdoor play-space with us. I’m always looking for new out-door play ideas, and I’d love to see how your little people spend their days!



A great outdoor space for a baby or toddler doesn’t have to be huge or cost a fortune. All you need is a safe, obstruction-free patio, porch, or grassy patch with a shady area nearby, where your cutie can test new skills, investigate, play, and experiment.

Depending on the space, you can create up to five fun activity centers by rigging, investing in, or repurposing a few simple, low-cost, or forgotten toys and equipment. If you follow your baby’s skills and interests as a guide, the activity centers here can keep your little one busy for hours.

  Use the natural gifts of your backyard

Okay, sometimes when you have a lemon you need to make lemonade. We had just built a new home in the Rocky Mountains…so our yard was a tad bit rocky and about one half of it was sloped. We had already carved out a path to the house and built stairs with wooden fencing posts laying on their sides and pavers when we found out that we were going to get to adopt a baby from my friends’ teenager. I wanted flower paths to run on each side of them to add some color and a touch of playfulness. That seemed like it was going to be easy to do while waiting for our baby. It was really interesting how grow flowers on such an incline. And it was charming in the end. When she was a baby we would sit on the stairs and play by the flower/herbs on both sides of them. Just like I hoped she would!

Daffodil step garden Stock Photos and Images | agefotostock

NOTE: If you just recently planted new seeds and you planted them on a incline or you know that heavy rain storm is coming then the best bet is to provide protection. We can provide protection by doing the following:

• Add a piece of cardboard, paper grocery bags, burlap, or a sheet over top of the planting area.

• Add a layer (a 1–2-inch layer) of small mulch such as straw or fine wood chips/sawdust to help keep the seeds from floating away. You can just leave it there It because also makes a softer layer for their feet.

• Use soaker hoses instead of sprinkler to water them. Also, water in the evening when it can soak in.

Then I planned a wildflower garden.

Our front yard overlooked our neighbors massive breathtaking flower bed. So, I planted a ½ acre of our open space with wildflowers…my way. I mixed a bunch of Rocky Mountain Wildflower seeds with perennial flowers and herbs together that peaked at different times over the spring summer and fall. One thing I loved about growing up in the Finger Lakes was the way the wildflowers on the roadside changed. I was trying to duplicate that.

Wildflower Meadows: Let's Get Real | Larry Weaner Landscape Associates

OMG I did not even imagine how important this became to our little community’s children. There were lots of outside naps at first.

Wildflower Meadows: Let's Get Real | Larry Weaner Landscape Associates

Then came all the teddy bear tea parties, daily wild bug hunts, family blanket picnics, sensory jar making parties, stone collecting and dipping them in glitter glue or paint (DIY glow in the dark paint was popular), wildflower potpourri and bouquet making for drying, winter sledding: and let’s not forget the water play while “giving the flowers something to drink”.

More Garden Play

Garden Play_ Engaging Children in Nature Through a Sensory Garden

Some children are at home up to their elbows in the soil, while others may be a bit leery of getting dirty. Some have a curiosity for the creatures that inhabit the space and others may get the willies from all the creepy crawlies. Regardless of the differences in background, attitude, or experience, the garden can be a fun place to play. Some kids just need a little help getting interested.

Break down barriers to experiencing the garden at a young age by engaging the senses.

SIGHT: Kids can see all that grows in the garden, but they can also use their eyes to inspect it. Have them pick flowers and pull them apart to get a closer look. Collect bugs in a Mason jar and feed them some leaves. Play “I Spy” and see how many new things they can observe in the outdoor space.

SMELL: The aroma of the garden is intoxicating! Try smelling different flowers to see how they differ from each other, or even try smelling different colors of flowers of the same kind and talk about what you learn.

TASTE: Picking berries fresh from the garden to eat must be the single most powerful form of garden play. I plant blueberries, grapes, strawberries, raspberries, and ground cherries all for the simple pleasure of snacking out in the garden. I never grow enough to bring indoors and all the kids who visit my house know how to pick a bush clean in no time flat! Herb leaves offer a fun tasting project as well. Pick a few different kinds of herbs and let kids try to identify them just from taste. Get ready for some funny faces when chives or rosemary get chomped. Their palettes will grow the more they snack. You may even get them to fall in love with kale!

Kids Garden Tools

TOUCH: Feel the soft leaves of lamb’s ear, the spiky casing of a chestnut, the warmth of river stones set in the sun, or the squishy guts of a freshly-harvested tomato. There is no end to what little hands can get into in the garden.

SOUND: Ask kids to identify the sounds they hear in the garden. Is there running water, buzzing bees, or chirping birds? How many different things make up the musical score which plays in the background? Ask kids to imitate the sounds and find the source.

Creative expression, learning, and confidence will all develop naturally from a comfortable place to play.

Garden Crafts for Children

Here are a few more projects that may help to engage kids and warm them up to getting a little dirt under their fingernails!