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How to engage in outdoor nature play with kids

Finding a patch of bush and setting your children free to play in the dirt, scramble over rocks and climb trees can have enormous benefits, ANGELA SAURINE writes

Nature Play WA Mud Monsters Ball 06

It’s a lament we’ve all heard – kids don’t play outside as much as they used to. It’s not like the good old days when they’d run around the bush barefoot. City living, traffic, technology, homework, litigation and overprotective parents are among the things blamed for the trend. But there is a growing appreciation of the benefits time spent in nature has for our young, with more and more services popping up to fill the niche market.

Bush Balance

Kids having fun at a Bush Balance playgroup

Early childhood teacher Deborah Wood started outdoors all-weather playgroup Bush Balance in Sydney’s inner west in 2020, following the closure of public playgrounds during the COVID-19 lockdown. She offers weekly sessions for children aged up to five and their carers, and Saturday sessions for children up to eight and their families. The group meets at a park in Alexandria, and Deborah provides tools for play, including magnifying glasses, junior hacksaws, whittling knives, palm drills, tape measures, hammers, spirit levels, ropes and pulley systems, as well as paint and books about nature.

Having worked with young children for 14 years in long day care centres, pre-schools and as a private nanny, Deborah became convinced that kids needed more time outdoors. She says being in nature has a peaceful effect, helping us recover from the stress and anxiety that many of us feel. “I had experienced numerous times the calming influence of nature on children,” she says. “I knew that an upset, stressed or anxious child often responded well to being outdoors. I also knew that I was a lot calmer outdoors and I coped with noisy play much better in the outdoors.” She initially tried taking children that she nannied bushwalking, but soon realised that children needed time in nature, but not with adult pressure to achieve a certain target. “Playing in one spot was going to be much more relaxing for us all,” she said.

Reading books about nature at a Bush Balance playgroup
Reading books about nature at a Bush Balance playgroup

Deborah was strongly influenced by Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods and Angela Hanscom’s Balanced and Barefoot. “Richard Louv writes about the criminalisation of natural play,” she says. “In past generations children have had freedom to play, build and spend time outdoors. With increased litigation and high density living many past experiences are simply not allowed anymore. This resonates with me as I recognise that the play I engaged in as a child would simply not be allowed today. I also found it a struggle to find land that I was allowed to use for Bush Balance, and an insurance company that would allow children to play outside! Angela Hanscom is an occupational therapist who writes about the link between the decline in outdoor play and the decline in the health and physical strength of children. I was easily convinced of the need for children to explore uneven surfaces, climb trees and take risks.”

Tree climbing at a Bush Balance playgroup
Tree climbing at a Bush Balance playgroup

Outdoor play also offers opportunities for physical development as children walk on uneven surfaces, pull themselves onto rocks and climb trees. “In the outdoors children have more space to make noise, run fast and jump high,” Deborah says. “As children enjoy time outdoors, they grow up to be people who care about the outdoors – which is certainly something that our world needs. Children need to have time for play, yet often their week can get filled up with structured activities or adult-led activities. They need time to imagine, run, explore and make up their own games. However, many adults enjoy having a structure to their day and somewhere to go and talk to other adults. Bush Balance aims to meet both the needs of children and adults, effectively scheduling in free play.”

If there isn’t a Bush Balance offered in your area, there are still ways to create a similar experience. Deborah says parents should make sure they are all kitted up in good wet weather gear, if necessary, and find a small patch of bush in the local area that is easy to get to. “Our children are much smaller than us so a few rocks and trees can be enough to make them feel totally immersed in nature,” she says. “Be prepared to do nothing but watch. As adults it’s hard for us to do nothing, we are conditioned to being productive at all times. Often children’s play doesn’t look productive to us – but trust the play!” Deborah says you need to go to the same spot a few times in a row, as everyone needs time to get used to a new type of activity. “At Bush Balance we have noticed that week four and week five of the term are when the children’s creativity really becomes apparent as they have had time to become comfortable with the environment.”

Nature Play WA

Nature Play WA Mud Monsters Ball 02
Nature Play WA's Mud Monsters Ball

Nature Play WA CEO, Griffin Longley, agrees that time spent outdoors can have enormous benefits to kids’ physical and emotional health. He describes Nature Play WA as an advocacy organisation that aims to “support, encourage and inspire a return to mucking around outside”. Started as an initiative of the Department of Sport and Recreation, it runs large scale events such as cubby town, where up to 4000 kids gather in a national park to build cubby houses out of sticks and boxes. There’s also the mud monsters ball, where they find a patch of dirt and the volunteer fire brigade comes and sprays it with hoses. The kids then dance, throw mud and roll in it. “Our events are designed so families can replicate them any weekend of the year for free,” Griffin says.

Nature Play WA Cubby Town 09
Cubby Town fun

Nature Play WA also works with local councils to create digital trails, which include a Pokemon GO-style game in which GPS points are overlaid on a map on an app, with an activity to do at each location along the way where kids can earn points.

Griffin says outdoor, nature-based fun is relevant for people of all ages. “Outdoor play is different to sport and playgrounds which are for very specific age groups,” he says. “A good outdoor area that’s nature rich can be used by a grandma equally as it can be by a toddler. A toddler might balance on a log and a grandma might sit on it and eat a sandwich while she watches the kids play. Ultimately, it’s about families choosing to do it themselves,” he says. “It’s their decision how they want to spend their time and what kind of experience they want to have and memories they want to create.”

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