Studies have found that playing in nature offers a multitude of benefits including psychological well-being, cognitive growth, physical health benefits and social, spiritual and tangible health benefits. It has also been shown to increase a child’s concern for their natural environment and natural resources. It is particularly important that caregivers get children out into nature during early childhood to promote cognitive development, stimulates creativity and problem solving skills and increased concentration. 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
At Home: Start with a small garden and large seeds or try out our super easy Kitchen Scrap Garden inside or outside.
Around Town: 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 Teepee and/or Sunflower Fort
At Home: It’s a garden and a fort in one. Mother Earth News shows how to do it. Besides beans, you can grow squash on poles to make a teepee fort. You can also make a similar fort with sunflowers.
Around Town: 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
At Home: 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. Preschoolers and even grade school kids will want to play in their fairy garde regularly if you make it engaging and sturdy.
Around Town: 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
At Home: Como Zoo offers these PDF instructions for children to make their own. These instructions use a disposable plastic cup; if you want something a little sturdier, you can use a broken porcelain cup or pot.
Around Town: Several local nature centers have native frogs and toads in terrariums where families can learn more about local frogs and toads. Check out the Leonard Wilkening Children’s Gallery at Como Zoo for more exotic varieties.
5) Create a sensory garden
At Home: Sensory stimulation is necessary for child development. 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.
6) Make weeding fun
At Home: 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.
Around Town: If you want to make this a give-back opportunity, consider volunteering for a community invasive species removal event.
7) Garden Balance Beam
At Home: Put a low balance beam across the center of your vegetable garden for easy harvesting. The kids will enjoy walking across it all summer, too.
For more ideas, The Natural Learning Initiative has a Gardening Activity Guide among their resources.
Play that Supports Wildlife
We take care of the things we value. If we want to raise young conservationists 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
At Home: 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.
Around Town: Three Rivers Parks have installed bat houses around park buildings in most parks. You can also observe bats at the Elm Creek Archery Range around dusk. The Minnesota Zoo has African Fruit Bats on its Tropics Trail.
9) Go birding
At Home: You really don’t have to go far to see birds. We’ve identified numerous backyards birds both by site and by using the Minnesota DNR’s bird songs page.
Around Town: 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
At Home: 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.
Around Town: Anne recommends the Tiny Diner in among her favorite Spots for Outdoor Summer Dining with Kids because of their pollinator-friendly gardens that kids can explore.
11) Plant milkweed
At Home: Watch for monarchs, their eggs, their caterpillars and their chrysalis.
Around Town: Visit the Lyndale Park Butterfly and Hummingbird & Perennial and Border Gardens to check out their milkweed for caterpillars.
12) Raise butterflies or tadpoles
At Home: Raise butterflies and/or tadpoles, track their progress, then release them. You can find these through mail order (but be careful to get native species).
Around Town: Ask A Naturalist.com gave some advice to a Woodbury resident on where to find tadpoles. Monarch eggs and caterpillars can be found on milkweed, but don’t remove them if you don’t have your own stash to feed the larvae and it is probably best to ask before removing from parks or public spaces.
13) Hang a birdhouse near a window
At Home: This is great 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. Try this interactive bird song poster from the Minnesota DNR.
Around Town: Nature centers, like the Carl Kroening Interpretive Center in Minneapolis, often have bird feeding stations built next to large windows, so you can watch birds (and squirrels) from the comfort of indoors.
14) Invite native pollinators with a bee hotel
At Home: Bee hotels or habitats 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.
Around Town: Be a Citizen Scientist and help the University of Minnesota gather information through one of their community science programs.
15) Listen and try to identify nature sounds
At Home: Again, use the interactive bird calls chart and a singing insects lesson, courtesy the Minnesota DNR, to familiarize yourself with native sounds. The Minnesota Zoo offers these ideas for using the nature sounds for inspiring creativity.
Around Town: The Brown’s Creek State Trail (near Stillwater) has a listening station where visitors can hear bird songs, frog calls and other nature sounds found along the trail.
16) Watch a spider spin a web
At Home: Pair this quiet activity with a book about spiders or read this blog post about spiders from Three Rivers Park District together.
Around Town: Como Zoo’s Tropical Encounters exhibit includes spiders of all sizes.
17) Find your own Microcosmo
At Home: The French documentary, Microcosmos, will always be a family favorite. Find your own by lifting a heavy rock and examining the mini wildlife underneath.
Around Town: 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 Ideas
We are so blessed to have four distinct seasons in Minnesota. Take advantage of outdoor fun year round with these ideas.
Winter Nature Play Ideas
18) Build an igloo
19) Construct a snow fort
At Home: Use your newly built fort to commence an epic snowball fight. The Minnesota Landscape Arboretum has some simple directions here.
Around Town: If you take this activity to a park or public space, remember to keep it far away from snow plow routes – especially avoid snow piles created by the plows.
20) Strap on the skates
At Home: If you want to build your own ice rink, there are instructions online, you can buy a kit on Amazon, and there are even local companies who will come in and install the rink for you.Around Town: Get out on the ice! Skate, slide or even ice fish. We have collected ice skating rinks and ice fishing fun across the Twin Cities for you to enjoy.
21) Go Sledding
Tubing and snowboarding are fun, too. For a little winter thrill, choose from one of these top sledding hills in the Twin Cities or Snow Tubing for the Family – Best Twin Cities Hills.
22) Go about it on snowshoes
Here are just a handful of local parks offer inexpensive snowshoe rentals:
- Elm Creek Park Reserve (Maple Grove)
- Maplewood Nature Center
- French Regional Park (Plymouth)
- Theodore Wirth Park (Minneapolis)
- Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge (Bloomington)
Spring Nature Play Ideas
At Home: Take advantage of April showers to splash in puddles and sail boats in gutters.
24) Celebrate Earth Day
Around Town: Participate in Earth Day Events, including clean up events, across the Twin Cities. Teach your kids about our responsibility to be good stewards of the land.
At Home: 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
At Home: Resurrect the tradition of growing berry bushes along the alley for neighborhood kids.
Around Town: The Twin Cities has plenty of Pick-Your-Own Produce Farms to visit.
Summer Nature Play Ideas
26) Camp out
At Home: If you can’t make it an epic family outing, simply pitch a tent in the backyard.
Around Town: 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
At Home: If you are lucky enough to have fireflies in your backyard, chances are your kids already do this. If not, this article from Good Housekeeping outlines some ways to attract them.
Around Town: 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.
Fall Nature Play Ideas
29) Mow a grass maze
At Home: Let your law grow a little longer and mow a maze at home, if you are lucky enough to have space for it.
Around Town: Go big and visit one of the Twin Cities Top 10 Corn Mazes that confuddle families each fall.
30) Jump in a giant pile of leaves
At Home: Rake it up and then jump into it! Leave the bagging for later or skip the bagging all together and use the leaves for garden mulch.
Around Town: Watch our calendar for leaf jumping events. We usually see one or two a year, hosted by local parks or churches.
31) Harvest your own apples
At Home: If you have a good apple tree of your own, take advantage of nature’s bounty.
Around Town: Check out the Family Fun Twin Cities Guide to Apple Orchards to find the perfect orchard for your family’s fall outing.
Landscaping Nature Play Areas
Parents (and/or grandparents) can make a backyard inviting and accessible to kids by choosing natural features that encourage them to interact with their environment.
32) Build An Outdoor Stage
At Home: 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.
Around Town: 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
At Home: 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 loose parts.
Around Town: If you’re not “lucky” enough to have your own tree debris, check out Anne’s impressive list of nature playgrounds. Most of them have forts, nests and tipis already constructed to encourage free play.
34) Create a Music Garden
At Home: 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.
Around Town: 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. A new favorite of mine is Town Green Park in Maple Grove. If you are up for a bit of a day trip, Visit the Sturgis Park Music Trail in Buffalo, Minnesota.
35) Design Nature Exploration Pathways
At Home: 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.
Around Town: 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) Add whimsy to your every day playspace.
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.”
At Home: Give a Tree a Face or other whimsical additions to your outdoor space.
Around Town: 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 and sandy!
At Home: Just a personal note here: For under $300, we had a large area of our backyard turned into a sand pit. 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.
Around Town: If sand everywhere 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
At Home: Keep at least a small 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.
Around Town: Pick a park – nearby or a little further afield. Most parks offer green spaces for open play.
39) Plant a special tree
At Home: Plant a tree for each kid to claim as their own, or just pick one already in your yard and let them “adopt” it as their own.
Around Town: No space for a tree? Participate in an arbor day planting in a park and visit your “little friend” regularly. We include Arbor Day events in our annual Earth Day round up.
40) Encourage play with natural objects
At Home: Sticks, rocks, leaves, pine cones and other found objects make simple, open-ended playthings. Unlike manufactured toys, natural elements can also be composted or mulched when they’ve been left out in the elements too long.
Around Town: Nature Playgrounds keep these objects onsite for creative play.
41) Logs and limbs
At Home: Recent storm or trimming trees for the season? Use debris for climbing, balancing, building and discovering nature.
Around Town: Dodge Nature Center, pictured below, is home to one of the many Nature Playgrounds that we love.
For more ideas like this, the National Wildlife Federation shares Guidelines for Creating Nature Play Spaces.
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!
At Home: If you are lucky enough to live near a body of water, you and your kids have probably got your favorite fishing spot secured.
Around Town: 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.
If you would rather not fish, you could visit fish at an aquarium – good Twin Cities options include the Minnesota Zoo, Sea Life Minnesota at the Mall of America or Seaquest Aquarium at Rosedale Mall.
44) Make a splash!
At Home: No need to travel to find water play. Build a seasonal goldfish “pond” out of a barrel, pot or fountain; or just turn on the backyard sprinkler.
Around Town: 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 activities: Water Safety Tips for Swimmers.
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.
Childhood Nature Adventures
48) Go Hiking
At Home: Start young and in small doses with just going on “hikes” around the block or through local parks.
Around Town: Build up to longer hikes gradually. Trails are plentiful in Minnesota parks.
49) Start a Nature Collection
Around Town: 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.
At Home: 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
At Home: 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).
Around Town: We had a great time at Fort Snelling State Park‘s beach identifying tracks in the sand at the beach. The Minnesota DNR offers a PDF Activity Sheet to print off and compare to tracks you find.
51) Hunt for fossils
Close to Home: Visit the Lyndale Park Peace Garden, where you can prehistoric fossils embedded in large boulders placed throughout the garden .
52) Keep outdoor equipment handy
At Home: Punch some holes in a plastic bin to keep outside with fun and weather-resistant play equipment, like frisbees, a rubber ball, horseshoes, croquet and jump ropes.
Around Town: 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
At Home: We have recently partnered with the Get Outside Club, who creates backyard treasure hunts for families to do together. If you Shop Get Outside Club through our link, Family Fun Twin Cities receive a small commission.
Around Town: We have more ideas in this article, including both events and anytime hunts: Twin Cities Treasure Hunts for Families
54) Visit a National Park
At Home: Kids can print these Junior Ranger Books to do at home anytime. Obviously, you want to actually visit when you can, but get them excited about earning badges in the meantime.
Around the State: Joy has a roundup here of the closest to the Twin Cities – some of them are in 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…)
At Home: I like to use the book One North Star, by Minnesota author Phyllis Root before, during or after a night walk.
Around Town: Three Rivers Parks offers full moon 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
Gianna shows us how to make Nature Art worth framing.
61) Create a Nature Journal
If you join Doing Good Together’s Membership Circle, a printable nature journal is one of your exclusive perks.
62) Craft nature art
At Home: 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.
Around Town: Visit the Arboretum in person. On-site PlantMaker Studios were temporarily suspended in 2020, but will resume when possible.
63) Capture pictures
At Home: Hone your skills at photographing nature. Here are 12 tips to improving your outdoor pictures.
Around Town: Silverwood Park offers a monthly photography club for teens and adults.
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 among the landscaping rocks. 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? We share a list of parks that explicitly allow hammocks in this review. 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:
Richard Louv is author of Last Child in the Woods and other books about children and nature. His books are a really great place to start if you want to learn more.Click here for More Nature Play at Home
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