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Playing more in nature with children: Tips & ideas!

Out into the fresh air: Why is nature important for children?

Do you remember how as child you frolicked about in the open air in all weathers? Did you love splashing through puddles, climb trees and enjoy investigating your surroundings? Or did you chase butterflies in colourful summer meadows, and madly kick up piles of dead leaves in the autumn? What mattered was that it was always fun. And even if, your face, hands, shoes, and clothing were dirty at the end of the day – you were above all deliriously happy.

Today many children grow up with no direct relation to nature. They visit playgrounds in the city, and generally have no idea where to begin with unspoiled green spaces, woods, fields, or streams. That’s such a shame, because the natural landscape offers so many attractive and diverse potential experiences, and not just for children. As adults, during an excursion through woods and green fields, we too can rediscover the adventure and fun of long-forgotten childhood memories

You will find out here why nature experiences are so important for the development of children and how you can help your child to play more in nature.

Why are children becoming increasingly estranged from nature?

Numerous children are experiencing a real remoteness or even a disconnection from nature. They have absolutely no idea about the natural rhythm of the seasons or their effects. For example, when do sowing and harvesting take place? When do cherry trees bloom, or when is the time to pick fragrant strawberries in the field and devour them there and then? The positive feeling for our natural and cultural landscape needs to be learnt lovingly.

However amusing and bright they may seem at first glance, the colouring books of some children speak volumes. Some children paint their cows purple, based on the example of the well-known “lilac cow” because they really believe that a cow is purple or a duck is yellow. They have romantic and idealised impressions which have very little to do with reality. But why is it that children ever less frequently gain experiences of nature and thus become alienated from nature? This phenomenon has a number of causes, such as:

  • Excessive use of digital media in everyday life
  • Parents bring their children to school or to club sports by car
  • Knowledge about nature is provided by the media, and not in the fresh air, and so an important learning process is missed
  • Mothers and fathers pursue an overprotective style of upbringing, fearing that accidents could occur outdoors, that children could freeze, or get wet or dirty
  • Natural spaces are becoming rarer, as is evident above all in cities

Excessive media consumption plays an important role in the lack of an emotional connection to nature. For example, a study from the Great Britain concluded that 78 percent of 8-year olds were able to name Pokémon characters with certainty, but only 53 percent could distinguish the animal species living in Great Britain.

How can children’s experiences of nature be encouraged through play?

Experiences, observations, and encounters in the open air trigger great enthusiasm and fun in children. They have a positive effect on very varied physiological and psychological areas of development, and advance our children in so many ways. Playing and learning in nature – and specifically not in a playground, but instead in the woods, by the river, or in the fields – encourages above all the following areas of child development:

  1. Motor skills
  2. Sensory perceptions
  3. Cognitive skills
  4. Emotional development
  5. Social interaction and empathy

Support of motor skills

In the natural environment, our children are able to indulge their strong urge to move to the best possible degree. They can climb trees, balance on fallen tree trunks, build huts from branches and twigs, or play hide-and-seek. In very specific ways, all this encourages the children’s physical health and motor development.

Strengthening the sensory perceptions

Outdoors our little ones are exposed to a wide range of different sensory experiences and especially to many stimuli, without the threat of sensory overload. Primarily the sense of touch is stimulated, because it comes into contact with so many different materials, such as earth, plants, tree bark, and water. But the sense of smell is also particularly bolstered by nature. There is nothing like a spring walk for the perception of different smells, and beautiful colours and forms. The smell of flowers or freshly mown grass is formative and emotionally moving. Simply through playing, children learn to perceive their own senses better in the natural environment, and this has a positive effect on their self-awareness.

Strengthening the cognitive skills

There is no picture book that teaches children so much about nature as playing in meadows, woods, by a brook, or in the countryside. By playing, they become familiar with the eternally recurring change of the days and the seasons, the rhythm of the plants, and the various habitats of the animals. During excursions, colourful flowers can be picked, and garlands can be woven, for example, or chestnuts and pine cones can be gathered, so that funny figures and decorations can be made at home. Experiences like this in nature directly influence our children’s development, by encouraging creativity. In contrast to a playground, where fixed playing equipment, such as swings, slides, and climbing frames is already present, undeveloped open spaces make it possible for your child to develop his/her creativity to its fullest extent through free play

Support of emotional development

If children regularly take exercise in nature, this can also have a positive effect on their social life. Discoveries and adventures outdoors, in nature and in the fresh air, not only extend the horizon of children. They stimulate the imagination, modify self-perception, and thus reinforce the self-confidence of our little ones. Numerous basic needs of children are satisfied, such as playing and letting off steam, creativity, and enthusiastic reporting and expression of what has been experienced. Children are naturally inquisitive and investigate very closely what happens around them in their world. They ask any number of questions and develop an emotional attachment to their environment, which in turn contributes to increased security and reinforces well-being.

Encouragement of social interaction and empathy

Experiences and observations in nature help our children to develop healthy empathy and good social interaction. Conscious contact with animals teaches them, for example, that all living beings have different needs, and that these do not always correspond with the children’s own wishes. Such experiences teach to take account of the wishes and feelings of their fellow humans and to show appropriate consideration, not only when playing, but also when interacting with adults

How can children be brought closer to nature?

Our diverse natural world is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. The best of all is going on long or short nature discovery trips together with children, and observing all the different plants, animals, and insects close up. Some surprising impressions can be experienced only in nature, by using all the senses.

But it is often difficult to motivate children to spend time in the open air, especially if they are not used to it. So how can you discover nature with children, in order that everyone involved enjoys the experience? Try out some of the following tips:

  1. Trip to a farm: City children in particular benefit from regular visits to a farm to collect eggs, milk cows, or to look after the animals in other ways. Maybe they can also help out during harvest or in the fields. 
  2. Paper chase or treasure hunt: For groups of children, a paper chase through the wood is always a great idea. At the same time, the children learn a lot about trees, plants, and animals.
  3. Collecting litter: Walk through the wood with your child and collect all the litter that you find into a waste bag. In this way, not only does your child learn to engage respectfully with nature, but he/she can also really let off steam. You can also create a little competition of who has collected more litter at the end. That creates further motivation. 
  4. Excursion to a wildlife park or a petting zoo: During a visit to a wildlife park or a petting zoo, your child learns a lot about native animal and plant species, as well as moving about in the fresh air.
  5. Grow vegetables in the garden or collect wild herbs: It is a great experience for children to experience with their own eyes how a plant grows from a seed and bears edible fruit at a certain time of year. Collecting wild herbs which can be prepared as a colourful salad is also a special experience, for example using daisies, dandelions, watercress, or wild garlic
  6. Barefoot into nature: If the weather in summer permits, allow your child to go barefoot through nature. Feeling the different surfaces with bare feet is an inspiring sensual experience. In addition, walking barefoot promotes balance and the sense of touch

Five exciting games for children to enjoy in nature

Some children quickly get bored in nature and “want to go back home”. Is that something you’ve heard a lot? Then on your next excursion try one of the five following games. Not only will you see how quickly boredom disappears, but valuable nature experiences are gained as well.

1. Nature Memory

Collect ten different materials from nature, such as grasses, chestnuts, acorns, twigs, and cones. Spread them out in front of your child, and allow him/her 30 to 60 seconds to memorise some of them. Your child should then go off and collect exactly these objects within five minutes.

2. Find and Gather

On small pieces of paper, write or draw different things that you know you will find when you go out for a walk with your child. For example, these could be chestnuts, pine cones, acorns, stones, leaves, or daisies. Then, out on your walk, your child should now and again take one of the pieces of paper and look for this object or plant.

3. Blindfold barefoot walking course

Get your child to sense a path having different surfaces, when he/she is barefoot and blindfold. The surfaces could, for example, be grass, earth, sand, pebbles, chestnuts, or spruce cones. To make the adventure more exciting, blindfold your child, and lead him/her over the various surfaces. Guide your child with hints like “a bit to the right” or “a bit to the left”. Your child then has to guess the material which makes up the surface. Please ensure that the surface is free of pointed and sharp objects. 

4. Collect leaves for handicrafts

Give your child the job of collecting as many beautiful autumn leaves as possible. Back at home, use the leaves to make a garland, as a pattern for finger-painting, or stick them onto paper to make fun leaf-animals.

5. ABC walk

Preschool children can practice their alphabet in the woods through playing and at the same time collect important nature experiences. Simply get your child to look for objects beginning with “A”, “B”, “C”, etc., and thus use play to familiarise him/her with different terms from nature. 

Observe animals outdoors with children

Observing big or small animals together not only strengthens the understanding of nature and its creatures. By naming the different species, the children’s general knowledge and empathy are also developed.

For this you can hang up a bird feeder, for example, and observe the birds which fly around it. Enjoy the wonderful birdsong together, and consciously train your sense of hearing. In this way your child learns, without realising, to recognise the different bird species and gains a sense of how important it is to help certain species, especially during the cold months. Instead of a feeder, you could also build a bee hotel, and thus support the very smallest creatures. Honey bees and bumble bees are particularly useful insects, because without them trees would not bear fruit, and the colourful flowers would no longer bloom.

Re-enacting role plays from nature at home  

Whether observing birds through binoculars or the many small insects in the grass through a lens, many situations from nature can also be re-enacted with children in the form of role plays at home. In this way, play arouses an interest in nature and anticipation of an excursion which is coming up soon. This is where our Toddys can be exciting companions for all those adventures, great or small, which your child experiences in nature.

Zoe and Zoomy, for example, really enjoy being out in nature, so that they can observe animals and plants. They always examine everything extremely closely. Whether butterflies, small beetles, or ants, the two get really excited wherever they find something that flutters or crawls. And if you look very closely, there’s much more to discover than appears at first glance.

Because of all the different wildlife, Mio and his trusty companion Mounty love the mountains best of all. On their way to the mountains, they have already discovered a lot of exciting things on their excursions: broad alpine meadows with colourful flowers, marmots, and even ibexes.And with the telescope they’ve even seen the king of the skies, the eagle. Mio was also amazed to discover that even in summer there is still snow lying on the high mountain peaks.

You will find further exciting stories and campaigns on our website. Whether it’s instructions for a do-it-yourself bee watering hole, a campfire bread recipe, or exciting play ideas for any time of year. Just take a look into our creative world!

In conclusion: Discovering nature with children

Both for parents and children, it’s wonderful to spend time together in nature. We are able to bring an astonishing number of inspirations and ideas back home with us. There are so many good reasons why children should regularly take exercise in the fresh air and investigate the nature around them. Because, regardless whether it’s spring, summer, autumn, or winter – there’s always something to discover outdoors! 

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