Nature Play 101: The Basics and Benefits of Nature Play

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Presented by Little Hummingbird Society

By Kathleen Barron, Senior Programs Manager at Austin Parks Foundation

Nature Play is any open-ended, unstructured play opportunity using objects from - you guessed it - nature! Children are naturally drawn toward natural phenomena, and exploring objects in their natural environment, where they can independently observe, make connections, problem-solve and interpret these items.

Numerous studies have found cognitive benefits to Nature Play. These include increased attention, memory, creativity, and problem-solving as well as opportunities for early learners to engage in scientific concepts, counting, color identification and more!

Helpful Tips for Nature Play

Nature play can involve a wide array of materials. Typical materials include:

  • Bamboo stalks
  • Sticks
  • “Tree cookies”
    • These are slices of larger tree branches for stacking and building (and studying the rings!)
  • Acorns
  • Rocks
  • Shells

Get creative with the unique items around your own yard. Intermix these materials with items like plastic toy animals, butterflies and other bugs or other nature-themed toys from around your house!

Please consider developmental concerns when providing materials to children. Like any play materials, you’ll want to avoid choking hazards for very young children and supervise “sharp” materials like sticks.

Austin Investing in Nature Play

The City of Austin adopted the “Children’s Outdoor Bill of Rights” in 2016. As part of this commitment, Austin Parks Foundation has worked with the City of Austin’s Parks and Recreation Department, as well as many other city departments and community partners on the Cities Connecting Children to Nature Leadership Committee.

We meet regularly with these partners to collaborate on ways to enrich local schoolyards and other green spaces to enhance children’s access to nature and nature play opportunities.

Nature Play Kits Bring the Fun to You!

We are also one of the sites for the Loose Parts Nature Play Lending kits. These kits can be borrowed throughout the year by park adopters and other neighborhood groups to “activate” schools and parks.

The kits come with bamboo, tree cookies, rocks, shells, acorns, and other materials so children can build and explore these items, while making a connection to the natural settings around them.

Even in the absence of an outdoor space, check out these kids using one of the lending kits indoors. We brought it out to last Fall’s Generation Serve Family Volunteer Day Event and it was a huge hit!

We look forward to when we can lend these kits to our youngest park friends, but until then, we have put together a series of resources and nature play activities for use in your own backyard (or your living room if it’s a rainy day or you don’t have a back yard)!


1. Informal Science -

2. Children & Nature Network -


1. Santi stealing rocks - Barry Rivera

2. Smelling the leaves - National Wildlife Federation

3. Nature Play Kits - Austin Parks Foundation