Nature based play

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mud kitchen

With a growing tendency for children to be fixated with screens and obesity rates increasing, gardens and gardeners can play a role to encourage children to get outside to access nature and do some serious active playing. Not only will they have a great time but active children become active adults and an early introduction to nature and conservation will give them important values for their later life.

Play rarely needs adult input and ideally should be child led to allow them to fully explore their capabilities and imaginations, leaving you plenty of time to get on with your jobs in the garden or maybe even time for a coffee and a book. Play in nature does not just mean playing outside but actually interacting with nature, be it digging in the dirt or climbing the trees and as gardeners, there is plenty we can do to encourage play. Disclaimer – this will get messy!

A gardeners nightmare, a child and a freshly raked  leaf pile.

You may have a sand pit and water play area but what about rocks and stones? Can you allow a little of your rockery to be a dinosaur habitat or a monster truck arena? Are there any unused areas that can be for their own construction play with sand, stones and rocks? What natural resources can you add to make the sand pit more fun, shells? Water? Tree bark?

Wildlife areas are great for butterflies, bees and for a low maintenance, high impact addition to your garden. They will also be a great place for children to look for minibeasts. It is important to spend some time with children first discussing and investigating the insects and teach them how to look after and return the wildlife to its home, but once you are confident they will handle minibeasts carefully you can give your little ones temporary containers and microscopes and let them see what they can find.

You may already let your children help with planting, digging and weeding but it’s even more beneficial to give them their own area and let them do what they choose. You may end up with a bed full of sticks and stones, or the best dug patch of soil in the county, but eventually you may have your own little gardener for life.

Mud kitchens (see our top picture) are a great place for children’s role play. Provide a water source and a few old pots and pans and you will be getting cup after cup of leaf tea and mud cake coming out of your ears.

Is your potting area safe enough to be a potential play area? Can the pots and soil be used for the children to play with? Yes, it will be messy, but provide a dustpan and brush and set your expectations for them to clear up with you.

Children love dens and there are often corners in gardens that are perfect, some even come with natural walls and doors already. The dens start to have different areas and natural objects become kettles and beds with a little imagination.

A greengage client with a special woodland corner for their children with a  swing, rope swing and space to build a den. Lucky them!

You can have lots of great exercise-based play in a garden. Try lowering your mower blade for a shorter cut to make a running track around your lawn. Are your trees climbable? Have you any trees or shrubs ideal for wickets or goals?  Climbing frames are great, but trees are much better. Rope swings with a piece of board for a seat or a knot will blend in with your garden much more effectively than large pieces of plastic. Weeping willows and rhododendron bushes are great places for hide and seek.

If they have sticks, charcoal, chalk or limestone they will start to mark make, draw and write. There will be plenty of opportunity for maths-based play as children will count anything that can be counted, stones, shells, fossils, stepping stones etc.

Don’t worry if you don’t have a garden, there will be plenty of spaces for play locally. We are very lucky to have plenty of great play opportunities; green spaces, lots of footpaths, a national trust property with an outdoor play area, some great woods to explore, a village playground set in a large field and the fantastic Hallr wood which holds a variety of events and open days. The site is used for local forest schools  and their aim is for children to get ‘back to nature’ and enjoy time outside safely and independently.

Keeping safe whilst playing outdoors

Soil can contain harmful bacteria and fungi so good hygiene after playing and particularly before eating is important. Being outside and playing in nature will help build a stronger immune system and according to the hygiene hypothesis; exposure to soil and plants will make them less vulnerable to asthma and some allergies.

Children can get fed up quickly if they are cold or wet so the right clothes can make a difference and gardens with shade are a necessity in the summer. Large trees like Maples or Acers are fast growing and offer plenty of shade. Sunscreen and hats will keep them protected, but shade will keep them cool and able to play safely and happily.

Water in gardens is always a potential hazard, you need to decide if you are going to put a wire frame over ponds, have them in a fenced off area or keep those areas adult supervised.

Knowing your plants will help to keep your children safe, berries are brightly coloured to attract insects and birds and they can attract children too. Teach your children only to eat berries you have checked are safe, the same goes for plants, many can be toxic if ingested such as Hydrangeas, Foxgloves, Daffodils and Bluebells. Scratches and stings will be a natural part any outdoor play but if you know there are areas the children will be using for ball games or to make dens, it may be worth some judicial pruning.

Foxglove – digitalis, the entire plant is toxic including the seeds, although strangely the plant is more harmful to adolescents and adults than children.

Tree climbing can be difficult to watch as a parent, always encourage your child to have a plan to get up and get down and to stay within their comfort zone (and if necessary, within your reach). If you have Elms, Oaks or Maples these work well, you do need to avoid trees with flimsy or flexible branches and Birch and Willow are not good trees for climbing.

Enjoy, watch them develop and have fun and keep your fingers crossed for future gardeners and outdoor explorers.

Words: Jennie Eastick, Administration officer and amateur gardener