Studies have found that playing in nature offers a multitude of benefits including psychological well-being, cognitive growth, physical health and social, spiritual and tangible health. It has also been shown to increase a child’s concern for their natural environment. The most recent study recommends that everyone – kids and adults – get at least 120 minutes a week in nature. So how do you do that? We have some ideas for incorporating nature play throughout the year.
Nature Play in the Garden
1) Plant a Kid-Friendly Garden – Start with a small garden and large seeds or try out our super easy Kitchen Scrap Garden inside or outside. If you’re not ready for a garden of your own, visit a nature center like Tamarack Nature Center, where you can meet their gardener on Monday mornings and select weekends.
2) Grow a bean or squash teepee – It’s a garden and a fort in one. This video from South Carolina shows how. While we won’t get two opportunities to grow beans here in Minnesota, we can still grow beans and squash on poles to make a teepee fort. You may want to check with Bachmans or your favorite garden center for a recommendation on the best beans for our area.
3) Design a Fairy Garden – I recommend against the fussy, old-lady kind with breakable fairy features and perfect placement. One year we made a Neighborhood of Make Believe garden with Daniel Tiger action figures, a coconut birdhouse and a souvenir trolley from a thrift shop. That garden was re-arranged daily because it was played with daily. If you want to build a sturdy fairy house to anchor your garden, drop in to Heartfelt Craft Store in Minneapolis, where you can find the material to build one.
4) Add a toad abode to a wet garden – Como Zoo offers these PDF instructions for children to make their own. If you want to learn more about frogs and toads, several local nature centers have native frogs and toads in terrariums. Check out the Leonard Wilkening Children’s Gallery at Como Zoo for more exotic varieties.
5) Create a sensory garden – Use plants and garden accessories to engage all 5 senses. Aromatic herbs are a good choice. This garden would be great near a sitting area, since many of the aromatic plants discourage mosquitoes. Needs some ideas? Visit the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum‘s Sensory Garden or Kare11 made this video and accompanying article.
6) Make weeding fun – We made up a game about evil plants trying to infiltrate the garden and its our job to seek out these spies and eliminate them. In our garden, we’ve learned to identify “evil baby trees” (maple seedlings), “creeping evil” (Creeping Charlie) and “Deadly Nightshade” (the variety of nightshade in our yard is not actually deadly, but its more exciting to call it deadly). I don’t expect more than 10-15 minutes of sporadic help before they get bored. If you want to make this a give-back opportunity, consider volunteering for a community invasive species removal.
7) Put a low balance beam across the center of your garden for easy harvesting. The kids will enjoy walking across it all summer, too.
Play that Supports Wildlife
We take care of the things we value. If we want to raise children who value nature, helping them to create an awe and love for it is a good step. These are a few easy ways to encourage a love of wildlife.
8) Build a Bat House – if you’re brave. Did you know that bats are extremely helpful at keeping mosquitoes at bay? The Bat Conservation International website will give you directions at building your own bat house, or you can order a kit.
9) Go birding – Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden and North Mississippi Regional Park are good choices for a birdwatching outing. Each park allows you to check out free backpacks packed with birding equipment.
10) Create a butterfly and pollinator watching area – a large space isn’t necessary to do this. Select a spot that gets sun, but it sheltered from the wind. Add a large, flat rock or two for your butterflies to rest upon, and wet sand for a water source. Then choose from plants that attract pollinators.
11) Plant milkweed and watch for monarchs, their eggs, their caterpillars and their chrysalis.
12) Raise monarchs or tadpoles, track their progress – then release them.
13) Hang a birdhouse near a window – for an instant birdwatching habitat at home. Tape up a poster of native birds (many available on Amazon or look on Pinterest) and see how many you can identify.
14) Invite native pollinators with a bee hotel – are a swell way to attract pollinators to garden. Modern Farmer gives you a step-by-step if you’d like to build your own.
16) Watch a spider spin a web – Pair this activity with a book about spiders or read this blog post about spiders from Three Rivers Park District together.
Twin Cities Extras: Each October, Como Zoo hosts Creepy Crawly Awareness Week. This is a great time to see big spiders. Find a few year-round in the Tropical Encounters exhibit.
17) Find your own Microcosmo – The French documentary, Microcosmos, will always be a family favorite. Find your own by lifting a heavy rock and examining the mini wildlife underneath. For a Macro version of a Microcosmo, visit Springbrook Nature Center, where you can play in a larger than life model of a mound of dirt and see who lives in it.
Seasonal Nature Play
18) Build an igloo – here are some tips to get started building your snow shelter.
19) Construct a snow fort – then commence an epic snowball fight.
21) Go Sledding, tubing or snowboarding – for a little winter thrill, choose from one of these top sledding hills in the Twin Cities.
22) Go about it on snowshoes – here are just a handful of local parks offer inexpensive snowshoe rentals:
- Theodore Wirth Park (Minneapolis)
- Elm Creek Park Reserve (Maple Grove)
- French Regional Park (Plymouth)
- Maplewood Nature Center
- Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Bloomington)
23) Splash in puddles and sail boats in gutters.
24) Participate in Earth Day Clean Up events across the Twin Cities. Teach your kids about our responsibility to be good stewards of the land. If you feel your kiddos are too young or unable to spruce up local parks, here are 22 Ways for a Meaningful Earth Day at Home.
25) Go Berry Picking – I would love to resurrect the tradition of growing berry bushes along our alley for neighborhood kids, but until then, The Twin Cities has plenty of Pick-Your-Own Produce Farms to visit.
26) Camp out – Make it an epic family outing or simply pitch a tent in the backyard. Short on camping equipment? Minnesota State Parks offer an all-inclusive I Can Camp! program, supplying everything from the tent to the cooking gear. Plus they’ll coach you right through your camp out!
27) Chase fireflies – Fort Snelling State Park, lying low along the banks of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers, is a prime habitat for the glow-bugs. Look for them near open fields with tall grass from mid-June through mid-July.
28) Cloud watch – If the sky brings clouds, learn about the different types and how they form. My kids created these cloud-finders at a local park; you could easily design your own.
29) Mow a grass maze if you are lucky enough to have space for it, or visit one of the Twin Cities Top 10 Corn Mazes that confuddle families each fall.
30) Rake up a giant pile of leaves – and then jump into it! Leave the bagging for later or skip the bagging all together and use the leaves for garden mulch.
31) Harvest your own apples – If you don’t have a good apple tree of your own, check out the Family Fun Twin Cities Guide to Apple Orchards to find the perfect orchard for your family’s fall outing.
Landscape Choices that Encourage Nature Play
Make your backyard inviting and accessible to your kids by choosing features that encourage them to interact with nature.
32) Build An Outdoor Stage – Encourage your kids to create skits and shows using natural objects as props. These are generally temporary structures for us. They tend to be popular for a few days but soon become another thing to mow around. Many parks, like Normandale Lake Park, have stages and amphitheater’s that can be played on when not in official use. Just remember to clear any debris from natural props when you’re done.
33) Build Forts, Nests and Tipis – Use building materials such as branches, leaves, twigs and rocks. This is an ideal play idea for my yard. Our mature trees are always producing new materials. If you’re not that lucky, check out Anne’s impressive list of nature playgrounds. Most of them have forts, nests and tipis already constructed to free play in.
34) Create a Music Garden – Pull together old pots and pans, wind-chimes, weather-resistant musical toys and whatever else you can think of to make a place where kids can make music and noise to their heart’s content. If your neighborhood isn’t tolerant of noise, try a parks with outdoor music equipment. Martin Luther King Jr. Park and Jackson Square Park in Minneapolis have some musical equipment; so does the Minnesota Zoo. If you are up for a bit of a day trip, Visit the Sturgis Park Music Trail in Buffalo, Minnesota.
35) Design a Nature Exploration Path – Kids can go on mini expeditions. This can be as simple as a “tunnel” through lilac bushes or stepping stones that lead to a play area. If you don’t have a space for this in your own yard, take a walk at a park like the Rudy Kraemer Nature Preserve in Burnsville, where families can stop at several stations to learn a little about the local habitat.
36) Give a Tree a Face – or make other whimsical additions to your outdoor space. In local author Kelly Barnhill’s acceptance speech for the Newbery Medal, she tells about how she created imaginary worlds along abandoned trolley lines. She said, “A story can … make an ugly, forgotten gap in a city feel like a broad, wild, and infinite space.” If you need a little help with whimsy, drop in to Heartfelt Craft Store in Minneapolis. They are full of magical craft ideas that the kids can help create.
37) Let them get dirty! – Just a personal note here: For under $300, we had a large area of our backyard covered with sand. My kids love it. They are out in the “sandbox” from dawn to dusk. However, we have sand EVERYWHERE in our house. I pretend we’re living in a beach house. If this is not for you, the Minneapolis Parks Department still uses sand to cover their playgrounds or pick a favorite beach to visit in the summer.
38) Offer a grassy area for open play and yard games. Speaking of yard games, we cover most of the classics in our mega list of 60 Fun Outdoor Games.
39) Plant a special tree for each kid to adopt, or just pick one they already love.
40) Encourage play with natural objects – Sticks, rocks, leaves, pine cones and other found objects make simple, open-ended playthings. Unlike manufactured toys, natural objects can also be composted or mulched when they’ve been left out in the elements too long.
41) Logs and limbs – Recent storm or trimming trees for the season? Use debris for climbing, balancing, building and discovering nature.
Just Add Water Play
42) Go canoeing, kayaking or paddle boating – There are plenty of vendors, including Wheel Fun Rentals, that rent seasonal watercraft in parks across the Twin Cities. Make a plan to try paddleboarding at Lake Harriet this summer or sign the kids up for a canoe clinic at Lake Phalen Beach in St Paul.
43) Go Fish! – If you are lucky enough to live near a body of water, you and your kids have probably got your favorite fishing spot secured. For the rest of us, we have some ideas for the best fishing holes in the Twin Cities. Don’t want to invest in fishing gear? Many Minnesota State Parks offer free fishing and free loaner gear.
44) Make a splash! – No need to travel to find water play. Build a seasonal goldfish “pond” out of a barrel, pot or fountain. Turn on the backyard sprinkler. If you’d prefer to make an outing of it, we’ve got a huge list of the best splash pads in the Twin Cities to beat the heat.
45) Take swimming lessons and learn about other safety precautions for outdoor play.
46) Hit the beach – tired of the same swimming spot? You might find inspiration in our compilation of 20 Twin Cities Beaches to Try This Summer.
47) Explore a creek – Minnehaha Creek meanders 22 miles from Lake Minnetonka to the mighty Minnehaha Falls. Plan a spot to dip your toes on the Minnehaha Creek Watershed District website. Or follow these instructions from Maplewood Nature Center for Pond Dipping – which could be done in a creek, too.
48) Go Hiking – Start young and in small doses with just going on “hikes” around the block or through local parks. Build up to longer hikes gradually. Trails are plentiful in Minnesota parks.
49) Start a Nature Collection – Keep in mind that there are some laws to collecting. For instance, it is illegal to collect bird nests, feathers or eggs. A good place to start with nature collecting is Science Museum‘s Collector’s Corner. They know the laws and they also know the right questions to ask kids to get them thinking like a little naturalist. For the grade school and up naturalist, I recommend the Scottish blog Jake’s Bones. This incredibly articulate and knowledgeable young man started collecting and blogging about animal bones since he was 7. He’s now a teenager and taking a break from blogging, but he has an impressive catalog of articles.
50) Become Trackers – Examine animal tracks and try to identify them. This can be done in your own neighborhood (even if you only find dogs, rabbits and squirrel prints). We had a great time at Fort Snelling State Park‘s beach doing this in the sand. The Minnesota DNR offers a PDF Activity Sheet to print off and compare to tracks you find.
51) Hunt for fossils – Go on a road trip to the Hill Annex Mine after the #StayAtHome Order has lifted. Learn about it here.
52) Keep outdoor equipment handy – Stock a first aid kit, sunscreen and bug protection in your car for a more comfortable and safe impromptu nature stop. If you have the space, toss in some play equipment, too.
53) Go on a treasure hunt – We have lots of ideas in this article: Twin Cities Treasure Hunts for Families
54) Visit a National Park – Joy has a roundup here of the closest to the Twin Cities.
55) Explore a Minnesota State Park – Anne recommends 6 Minnesota State Parks within an hour’s drive of the Twin Cities metro area.
56) Walk When the Moon is Full (or canoe, or geocache or…) I like to use the book One North Star, by Minnesota author Phyllis Root before or after a night walk. Three Rivers Parks offers these programs year round at several of their parks.
Social Nature Play
57) Join a local family nature play group – Try using Meetup to find groups with similar interests planning outings.
58) Organize a nature scavenger hunt – You can find super easy ways to do it here. Summer Scavenger Hunt
59) Outdoor movies – Unplug the TV in summer and hit up movies in the park instead! Bring a blanket or chairs and a dinner to make it a picnic or pop your own corn to bring along. It’s a fun way to connect with the community. We keep a list of free summer movies across Twin Cities parks updated each season.
60) Volunteer outdoors – Sign up with a nature center, local park or a Citizen Scientist program.
Solitary Nature Play
61) Create a Nature Journal – (If you join Doing Good Together’s Membership Circle, a nature journal is one of your exclusive downloads).
62) Craft nature art – Collect bits and pieces to make a collage or just make crayon rubbings from their surface. Gianna shows us how here. And the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has shared several nature-art projects on their PlantMaker Studio @ Home page.
64) Start a rock collection – When you just don’t want to bring home any more junky souvenirs, start collecting rocks when you travel. We keep our “rock collection” outside. It is fun to hunt through for the special ones. You could even label them with paint if you’re ambitious.
65) Study and read about nature – The Saint Paul Library offers Nature Smart Backpacks at select locations. These kits can be checked out to learn about specific nature topics.
66) Study and read IN nature – Did you know that many local parks allow hammocks to be hung from trees? Or simply bring your book outside and read in the sunshine with your bare feet in the grass.
67) Wind down your busy day with a nature walk – According to Science Daily, just 20 minutes of contact with nature will lower stress.
Like every part of good parenting, encouraging nature play takes practice. Back when I was a relatively new mom and still under the delusion that I was going to be the best mom ever. I collected monarch caterpillars and tadpoles on a visit to the country so I could show my toddler the wonders of metamorphosis. Everything that could go wrong went wrong – the caterpillars were eaten by parasites while in their cocoons and the young frogs escaped into our house, never to be seen again. While these activities did not create the great memories I’d hoped for, they did teach us a few new things about nature and my daughter doesn’t remember either incident anyway. She simply remembers that we have always done nature things together.
Good Resources for Learning More:
Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv Nature Play at Home.
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