Kids and nature are meant for each other. The great outdoors fulfills a child’s natural inclination to play in dirt, yell along with the wind, and use loose branches and rocks as building blocks for the imagination. Playing in nature is playing with loose parts, which are everywhere, from the ground to the trees to the snow falling from the sky. Unassigned a specific role for play, natural objects like seeds and leaves become blank slates for the child's creativity. As children engage with natural loose parts, they realize their power to impact the earth, for better or worse. Children gain cognitively and physically from playing outdoors, and they also gain empathy and respect for nature.
Why play in nature?
Playing in nature encourages critical thinking and creativity. Children interact and experiment with materials differently in the outdoors, and are exposed to loose parts that inspire creativity (Spencer and Wright, 2014). They can feel the coarseness of sand running through their fingers and toes, fill a basket with pine cones, or count and compare leaves of different shapes and sizes. A study conducted by Kuh et al. (2013) validates the benefits of loose parts and natural features in a play area.
“Educators want children to develop the ability to problem solve, cooperate, observe, and navigate complex environments. Access to elements of natural playscapes promotes exploratory and investigative play that helps children develop beyond isolated, overly repetitive and constraining experiences on mono-dimensional equipment. When children play in a natural setting, they must appropriate what is around them, make decisions about where to go, what to do, and what to look at. This study indicated that children’s play activities were more sustained, constructive, and cooperative when given the affordances of a natural playscape” (p. 70).
Play with natural loose parts also encourages cognitive and intellectual development, and helps to develop fine and gross motor skills. Natural objects invite open-ended interaction and provide sensory engagement.
Children learn to care about the earth. Children who are exposed to the outdoors and have positive experiences in nature are more likely to develop a pro-environmental attitude as they grow older (Rosa and Collado, 2019). According to Crerar (2019), nature-based play is rising in popularity, whether in neighborhood playgrounds, schools, or at home in the backyard, and this has benefits for kids:
“Often incorporating constructed water courses, uneven rock and timber surfaces, insect and bird attracting plantings, and loose materials such as sand, pebbles and mud, these emerging innovative spaces facilitate an engagement with the natural world that researchers in the child development space say is crucial to the healthy growth of children’s minds and bodies” (p.85).
By including natural parts in play, parents and carers are promoting the fundamental value of nature in everyday life. Children will begin to find value in natural objects and appreciate the beauty of how simple, yet diverse, their outdoor environment can be.
Play with nature is green. Children don’t need toys or technology to engage with nature. They play with pods, flowers, twigs, and other loose parts found naturally. As natural items they belong to the environment and can be recycled, reused and returned. Natural loose parts are sustainable.
The beauty of exposing children to loose parts in the natural world is just how simple it is. All it takes is a little creativity and imagination, which children supply themselves!
Natural Loose Parts and Schemas
Natural loose parts can be presented to complement schemas—the repeated behavior children use to explore the world—and encourage further exploration and growth. Your child may be interested in one or more schemas, and there are natural loose parts suitable for all. As you observe your child’s play, you’ll quickly recognize your child’s schemas.
Below are some natural loose parts that appeal to certain schemas, as detailed by Canadian educator Michelle Thornhill. An outdoor treasure hunt is a great way to collect these natural loose parts and creates an opportunity to connect with nature in the process.
Vines, dandelion stems, dried bones, wet leaves, snow and ice, dead branches, clamshells, seed pods, coconut, dried herbs, flowers and food items for cutting and peeling.
Wood pieces, seeds, rocks, shells, pine cones, hollowed coconut shells, rice and natural woven baskets.
Smooth rocks, slate, sticks, logs, acorns, snowballs, ice cubes, kindling and branches for positioning in rows.
Piles of leaves, sand, clay, walnut halves, dirt, petals, pumpkins, corn husks and giant leaves.
Helicopter pods, star anise, acorns, snail shells, stepping stones, stumps arranged in a circle and hills for rolling down.
For a more comprehensive list, you can view the full chart here.
Crerar, C. (2019). Playspaces: child’s play gets serious. Sanctuary: Modern Green Homes, (48), 84-90. Retrieved August 3, 2021, from https://www.jstor.org/stable/26906375
Kuh, L., Ponte, I. & Chau, C. (2013). The Impact of a Natural Playscape Installation on Young Children’s Play Behaviors. Children, Youth and Environments, 23(2), 49. Retrieved August 18, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.7721/chilyoutenvi.23.2.0049
Rosa, C. D., & Collado, S. (April 2019). Experiences in Nature and Environmental Attitudes and Behaviors: Setting the Ground for Future Research. Frontiers in Psychology, 10 (763). Retrieved August 18, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00763
Spencer, K., & Wright, P. (November 2014). Toddlers and Preschool: Quality Outdoor Play Spaces for Young Children. YC Young Children, 69(5), 28-35. Retrieved July 27, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/ycyoungchildren.69.5.28
Thornhill, M. (2017). Loose Parts and Intelligent PlaythingsCategorized By Schema. Retrieved August 18, 2021, from http://mthornhill.weebly.com/uploads/6/3/4/0/63404993/loose_parts_by_schema_2017.pdf