6 Ways To Support Children’s Play in Nature


There’s something so empowering – for both children and adults – in allowing our young children to explore in their own time and in their own way, especially when out in nature.

Like that one time when my [then] three year old began scaling a five meter rock face on a beach holiday before I could stop her. She paused a few meters from the top calling out to me: “C’mon, mum: you can do it. It’s fun!”. My pregnant self froze momentarily at the time (Seriously, will I never blink my eyes near rocks again? And not just because my rock climbing skills are rusty…), but after the initial discomfort and impulse to protect my young ones, I realised I was actually comfortable with the situation – the experience and environment was well within my capacity to keep her safe and well within her climbing competency – it was my conditioned response around preconceived ideas of risk out in nature that created momentary panic within me.

That is one of the reasons why I love spending time with my own children out bush – they somehow manage to reflect all the limited beliefs and conditioned ideas within me. It gives me opportunity to stand back, tune in and observe closely their true capabilities. And as they navigate rough bush trails, slippery rocks, giant boulders (and the occasional rock face?!!), I practice pausing before passing judgment about whether I think they can do it. I resist grabbing their hand and helping them down a roughly-cut stone step or calling out to ‘be careful’ when they reach slippery rocks.

I’m slowly learning to get out of the way. I’m putting aside my own goals (that hardcore bush walk is much more fun solo or with a mate anyway!) and dedicating some of our family bush time to their needs. It’s a process.

And all this tuning in and observing my children in nature is unfolding some delicious magic between us. By trusting and celebrating them as whole, competent learners, I’m feeling more connected to them. And by putting aside my own agenda (most of the time!), I’m understanding them at a much deeper level; I’m finding out what they are genuinely curious about.

And the other cool thing? I’m giving them space to explore and build skills for assessing risk. They feel strong and comfortable in their bodies and it’s giving them opportunities to tune into their own needs more deeply.

The following six are things that have helped me give my kids space to play out bush. So if you’ve had those kind of ‘C’mon kids! hurry the *&!% up” bushwalking moments (haven’t we all!) or just need a few ideas of inspiration, check them out. These are some of the principles that we also follow on our programs at Wild Ground:

1. Dedicated ‘nature play’ time

Alongside bushwalking, bike riding, picnics with friends and crazy missions to explore new places, I take my children out at least once a week for family bush time. During this time, the kids get to choose where we go and what we do. They set the pace. Remember, it doesn’t always have to be a ‘teachable’ moment… The intention of this family time is connection. Of course, the children are learning constantly through their play. But that’s none of my business during this time.

2. Create a YES space

While I let my children choose where we go on our dedicated bush days, I am also mindful to ensure it is somewhere that I am comfortable with them to roam free and be safe. There’s no point going to the local water hole for a play during winter or at a time when I don’t feel comfortable letting them navigate that space freely and independently! I’d spend my time on edge, worrying my children would fall in and their play would be constantly interrupted by my boundary setting and need to keep them safe.

If you’re new to spending this type of time in the bush, you could start with a local park or even the town oval! Where ever you go, it needs to be a space that you all feel comfortable with and the children will actually be safe moving about freely.

3. Revisit Favourite Bush Spaces

One of the reasons we return to the same bush spaces in our Wild Ground programs is built on the ‘forest school’ premise that children can build a strong connection to natural spaces by returning to them again and again. It might be a particular place, a favourite tree or river. Over time they notice (in their own time and way) the changes that occur. They soon discover that particular flowers blossom at certain times of year, the way the water depth increases after rain…We don’t necessarily need to prompt or model this; they incorporate these discoveries into their play. Let them delight in these discoveries themselves.

4. Let them play!

Nature play is such a buzz word at the moment. Everyone seems to be talking about it. We all know our children should be doing it. Yet, what does it actually mean? The answer to that is worth a whole blog post itself (stay tuned) as it’s become quite a loaded term… And all those gorgeous pinterest nature crafts don’t necessarily help unpack the terminology.

At the foundation of Nature Play is the belief that children are not only whole, capable, creative human beings, but they should also be given unstructured time and space to play outside on their own terms, in their own way. In other words, give them space to play how THEY want to play.

Within this framework, my job – alongside keeping my children safe – is to observe, connect and delight in their play. It means holding back on judgement as to HOW they play. It also means another aspect of my job is TRUST. I am continually learning how to trust in their capacity as capable, whole beings. I’m trusting the need for RISKY PLAY. And trusting in the process that unstructured, free play is equipping them with all they need to develop their physical, emotional and spiritual beings. It also means resisting the temptation to extend their play by somehow making it ‘educational’ or ‘entertaining’. Sometimes this means jumping in the mud (if I’m invited), but often it means dedicated observation or sitting back and having some connected, but solo, breathing time.

Being open to their ideas and creating a YES space outdoors is a bridge towards connecting more deeply with your child. It doesn’t matter how messy, boring, annoying, repetitive these ideas seem to you. Practise letting go of that judgement and see what magic it brings to you and your child.

Step back, take a breath and count to 15 before interrupting their play. It can be so tempting to contribute to the play by extending it or making it somehow ‘educational’, ‘more creative’ or ‘entertaining’. What do you notice changes when you do this after a few hours? A week? A month?

5. Consider your use of language

The language we use with our children has an implicit impact on their self efficacy, self esteem and identity. Challenging ourselves to re-program and reflect on the messages we send children is crucial for equipping them to build body autonomy, learn risk assessment and develop a strong sense of self. Some questions to reflect upon:

a. Do I use the same language for boys and girls? Do I use words like “strong” and “brave” when describing the bush adventures in which girls participate? Do I allow boys to emotionally process when they fall from rocks or trees? Do I speak more about climbing trees and rocks with boys? Am I encouraging art making with boys? Check out this current series on abc iview for some interesting research about gendered language: http://ab.co/2GTdYOM

b. Am I using language which provides space for my children to assess their own risks? Or am I projecting my own fears onto them? Teacher Tom has some great alternatives to the words “be careful” here: http://bit.ly/2CGv52W

c. Am I using language which encourages free play? Or am I directing the action? A simple place to start with this is to describe what you see rather than give a command or ask a question. You might describe what you physically see (I see you are pouring water out of the bucket) or the emotion you see present (you seem a bit worried about moving from that branch). Pause and wait for the reaction from them.

This process of bringing awareness to our language can be challenging (and don’t we have enough to aspire to as parents? C’mon, already!). This isn’t about judgement, it’s simply another possible tool for navigating the crazy world of parenting. Another means for rewinding our children.

6. Go at their pace

Slowing down. It’s not always easy is it? And yes, it can be damn frustrating when you’re tired and just wanting them to hurry up along the track. You’ve just feigned admiration for the umpteenth mountain devil flower and you just want to get there! Remember a huge aspect of giving them space to play means unhurried and un-interrupted time to navigate, explore and discover the world at their pace. Even if it takes them fooooorever to get down that step or rock (focus on breathing in that fresh mountain air and feel the sunshine on your face!). And it just doesn’t matter if they’re more interested in the brown rock they’ve just found (or is it a dragon’s egg??) than the flock of black cockatoos or rare sighting of a platypus. Delight in their discoveries. They will find their own value in being the leader of their play.

In these moments we can find opportunity to slow down and tune in to ourselves. We build a closer connection with our children as we observe them. Our perspectives changes as we see the bush through their eyes… It awakens something curious in us…


Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not at all advocating we start letting our children scale cliffs whenever they want. In fact, I’d suggest you seek a professional climbing or abseil instructor if you or your children wish to engage in those kinds of activities (especially when rope is required). Their level of risky play should also align with our ability to keep them safe and be in keeping with best practise principles in our bush environments. Examining our beliefs around safety and perceived fear is another thing though. And it’s a useful activity.

Unstructured, free play and risk play are such important ways for children to connect deeply with both nature and themselves. As parents, when we provide space for this in our children’s weekly schedule, we also gift ourselves an opportunity to tune in and connect more deeply ourselves. With the bush. Our children. And most, importantly, ourselves. We need that slow, bush time too. It’s a win-win!

And in case you’re wondering: yep, my pregnant self meandered up the rock face upon request. And guess what? It WAS fun!

x Danielle

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