Unstructured Playtime in Nature: What Does it Mean and Why Should We Try to Do it?

The following is a guest post by Vanessa Brown of I Never Grew Up.

Unstructured playtime in nature – it seems like such a fancy term for simply letting the kids run wild outside, doesn’t it?  Unstructured playtime in nature is basically letting your children experience nature without any requirements, to-do lists or agendas, either alone or with others.

It results in wonderful benefits: memories, strengthened family relationships, independence, self confidence, increased creativity and appreciation and love for the Earth.

Also, just think of all the important poets, leaders, scientists, environmentalists and ecologists we will need for the next generation!

Many studies have been done on the benefit of unstructured playtime in nature and how problems are caused when it is not provided. There have been beautiful books written on the subject. Last Child In the Woods by Richard Louv should be required reading for everyone that has a job or relationship with children.

How Can I Get My Kids to Do This?

You would think that this unstructured playtime in nature wouldn’t need any prompting or help, right? Well, you know, us adults sometimes do need help!

Children that are usually quite busy and used to structured playtime might be a bit confused when asked to simply go into nature with no agenda. They might come running back saying, “Mom, this is boring.” But stick with it.  They’ll get used to it and learn to love it.

Here are a few tips to get the ball rolling. This is just a bit of guidance that can help spark their imaginations:

  • Simply tell your children to grab their favorite book or magazine and go sit under their favorite tree. They might then notice little critters or the shapes of clouds or the signs of a new season.
  • Give them an art pad and coloring pencils and tell them they could draw something they see outdoors: the shape of the bare trees or the birds they see in the sky.
  • Invite friends to play. Your kids usually will be less likely to complain about being bored if they have friends around, and the kids can feed off each other’s imaginations.  Just a simple prompt to go build a fairy house with nature supplies or to go find tracks of animals is great. When they get out there, they might come up with their own idea.  Be sure to let them.
  • Meet new people.  A couple years ago I actually started “Nature Days” in my area and invited people by posting it on my blog. We went to different locations to let our children explore nature.
  • Don’t forget you can explore nature AROUND you! After all, its wonderful for children to find their own “special spot” in nature where they can go and feel calm, be alone or do their homework.  And they need that place close by. Be sure to first explore the nature around your home.

Photo by Vanessa Brown
In his book, Richard Louv gave this wonderful insight that is one of my favorite quotes,

“We have such a brief opportunity to pass on to our children our love for this Earth, and to tell our stories. These are the moments when the world is made whole. In my children’s memories, the adventures we’ve had together in nature will always exist. These will be their turtle tales.”

I love that.  Some of my most cherished moments DO revolve around nature.  I loved going on an adventure in the woods with my dad to find a new fishing spot.  I remember walking along the rocks with my sisters at Chesapeake Bay.  They are memories that I pull out when I need extra strength or happiness.

We must make sure our children get these wonderful experiences and memories as well.

What do you do as a family or with friends in nature? What do you do to help guide your children to build a relationship with nature? Any tips of your own?

About Vanessa

Vanessa Brown blogs over at I Never Grew Up. She has four little girls, two old dogs, and one dog training expert husband and is currently residing in Costa Rica.

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  1. Love this post, Vanessa! I’m a mom & huge advocate of kids exploring nature & enjoying nature play. It will take a little work at first, but once you set the kids free, they’ll be happy to dig in the dirt, climb trees, skip rocks & run around to their heart’s content. We as parents just need to remember to allow them the time to do so! 🙂

  2. Leah Schroeder says:

    I always know when a child has been entertained too much when they say the backyard is “boring.” Creativity comes from having times that may be considered by some to be
    ‘boring’ and using them for unconventional purposes.

  3. Thank you for this post, Vanessa!

    When we first moved here, our oldest was not quite four and really just had no idea what to do with a backyard after being in the city her whole life. It took a few weeks of transition for her to get the idea having that open space all to herself, to do whatever she wanted with. For a while she was like, “Okay, I’m outside. Now what?” but it didn’t take her too long to learn to LOVE having all that space to roam and explore the outdoors w/o an agenda. Just being there.

    Now, we’re outside almost every single day year round and we love it!

    Thanks for this list of ideas, I especially like the suggestion to explore different areas in nature – changing the scenery (literally) and inviting new experiences to just be outside and enjoy it. 🙂
    Kara @Simple Kids´s latest post: Unstructured Playtime in Nature- What Does it Mean and Why Should We Try to Do it

  4. I love this post! I grew up in the country and just love nature. I’ve always made a point of making sure my kids have grown up enjoying the same. It’s kind of funny now as they get older – they don’t enjoy going to the city and they’ve even mentioned wanting to live in the country when they get older. I love that they enjoy the tranquility that comes with nature!
    Tina @ Kids Devil Costumes´s latest post: Light Up Devil Costume

  5. Love this! I have been exploring some Charlotte Mason resources in preparation for homeschooling and her emphasis on outside play really resonated with me. I remember many times as a child playing for hours with just sticks and trees and dirt. Definitely something I want to pass on!
    Natalie´s latest post: Three

  6. Great post! I really enjoyed Richard Louv’s book and agree that it should be recommended reading for all parents and teachers!
    Sometimes I just send my boys outside to eat a picnic lunch or snack, and once they’re “lured” out they find other ways to play!
    Amanda Morgan´s latest post: Putting a Stop to the Potty Talk

  7. Thank you I loved guest posting, this is such a wonderful site! Thanks for having me.
    Vanessa Brown´s latest post: Redoing Abby’s Loft Bedroom

  8. Great post Vanessa! This post makes me want to go outside and run through the grass and roll down a hill!

    Have you considered writing down your memories of hunting for fishing spots with your dad or Chesapeake Bay with your sister? I think those sound like wonderful memories to preserve in writing.
    Janna @ Mommy’s Piggy TALES – Record YOUR Youth´s latest post: Life Before Motherhood

  9. Great reminder, Vanessa, and a good list of kick-starts.

    But I would add one thing to the list that kind-of contradicts the other items. Don’t provide any ways to get started. These days as parents we feel so compelled to always provide entertainment, engaging activities, etc. for our kids. What kids need as much as nature is that feeling of being bored. And then having to work their way out of this themselves.

    We spent a lot of time with our kids thinking we needed to fill up summertime with activities and then were surprised when we backed off for our own busy-ness reasons how over a few days they would develop their own resourcefulness and their imagination would creep through on it’s own. We weren’t providing the activities and – whoa! they developed them themselves!

    When I was a kid playing with dirt, my stuffed animals, exploring the woods, it wasn’t because someone introduced it to me but because I had nothing else to do because my parents were busy doing something else.

    Boredom is a wonderful thing that too many kids don’t experience – it is the seed to creativity and imagination. It’s what makes us really look around us for something to do.
    Sarah´s latest post: Can You Do This

  10. I am so thankful for the backyard I had growing up and the summer memories I have of being outside ALL DAY LONG. I am aiming to give my children the same gift of freedom and opportunity, though it goes against the flow sometimes.

    Places to play are so important. A backyard, a favorite park, a summer spot we return to again and again (in our case, Canada)…these all give opportunities for our children to interact with nature on their own terms. Making time to get there (even to the park) is not automatic–it requires intentionality and sometimes sacrifice. I need to remind myself how important it is to get the kids–and myself–outside. It’s amazing how tension melts away in the first few minutes we get outdoors.
    Julia´s latest post: Weekend Adventures in Kansas City


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Catherine Oehlman, Susan Heid. Susan Heid said: RT @simplekids Unstructured Playtime in Nature: What Does it Mean and Why Should We Try to Do it? http://bit.ly/b4EziL […]

  2. […] recently put together a great one on the need for unstructured playtime in nature for Simple Kids here.  We both mention Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods – a must read!  And while […]