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Minimalist Nature-Play: Just Add Water (or mud or sand)

One of the most beautiful things about outdoor play is the fact that there isn't much need for extra prep, materials, or equipment. If planned well, natural outdoor play spaces often provide opportunities for play across all domains through the varying landscape and the loose parts already present.

At Wilderplay, we have found that the weather and seasons change just often enough to provide a natural variety of conditions that make each visit to the garden, wood, or meadow novel and engaging. Today's wind makes the same grass that grew here yesterday an entirely new sensory experience. The puddles in the path provide an interestingly different walk to the woods. The baby plants growing in the raised beds capture the interest of children who have played in this garden every day so far this week.

An yet, every once in a while, we feel the need to add something to re-engage our little friends in nature play. Don't let your teacher brain take you over the edge; we do NOT need to pull out loads of toys, create a themed activity, or make an art project out of a nature walk. One simple way to re-invest your child's attention is to add ONE sensory medium to your outdoor play area. Below you will find a list of examples with a few simple ideas for enhancing your outdoor play session:

JUST ADD WATER (and that's about it):


1. Water

When the temps are warm enough, water is a MAGIC ingredient for outdoor play. We know this. But- challenge yourself to allow water play in places you haven't yet explored. Take a bucket of water into the woods and wonder if acorns, pine needles, mushrooms, etc. might float or sink. Add a shallow trough of water to the garden and maybe your trowel and spade will end up sparkling clean. And the old stand by: let the hose run (responsibly, not in a way that endangers water supplies). Create mud, get soaked, make rainbows in the sun.

2. Sticks

A pile of sticks can take any woodland from "we did this yesterday" to "we've discovered a magical new place of wonder!" I am always on the look out for good sticks, whether at the moment good sticks are defined as sturdy branches, short twigs, or whole limbs perfect for den building. I keep an old laundry basket in the garage for stick collections so that whenever we need one more element to spark some creativity, I can dump a heap of sticks and sit back to watch the engineering happen.

3. Sand

We love dirty play, but sometimes a but of nice clean sand can really feel nice between the fingers. When it is just a bit too chilly for water play, sand offers a dryer alternative but still gibes opportunities for dumping, pouring, filling, and spilling. We have generous landscaping firms in our community who never hesitate to donate a load of sand for us to play with, and I've requested everything from a bucketfull to a dump truck load.

4. Play Dough

Not completely nature-derived, but nicely reminiscent of clay, play dough becomes a very interesting medium when presented in natural settings. I've had children make prints, use pine cones as stamps, mix dough with dirt, use dough as structural adhesive in stick-construction projects, and create flower art by pressing blooms into a play dough slab. I make my play dough from mostly food-based ingredients and often scent it will lavender or lemon, bringing an unexpected sensory boost as well.

5. Textiles

Scarves, bedsheets, sheer curtains... any fabric you might be ready to take to good will can also become a construction material or dramatic play device while out in nature. Keep a tote full of fabric items that can get wet, dirty, or torn... you can always toss them right in the washer if they go the way of grass stains and mud.

Don't be afraid to add an interesting element in less than "perfect" weather. Sand is fascinating while it is snowing, and play dough changes texture when brought out in the rain. Remember, the purpose is to increase interest, not have our materials preserved in perfect order during play.

See you out there!



When not working with children and their caregivers, "Lady" Lisa and her family enjoy exploring the woods, lakes, and beaches that surround their northern Michigan home. She holds a masters degree in early childhood studies, a graduate certificate in teaching adults in the early childhood field, and accreditation in wilderness safety and the forest school ethos.


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