Thursday, April 12, 2012

Muddy Shoes

Muddy shoes may be the mark of a well-educated child.”

-MN Conservation Volunteer Magazine-

As I was starting to get my garden ready this spring, I looked over and saw my daughter

playing in the weeds and dirt. Her feet were muddy and she was attempting to taste

some grass …This made me think of some ideas I recently read about kids and outside


The National Association for Sports and Physical Education recommends that

preschoolers get two hours of exercise daily (1 hour structured, 1 hour unstructured) .

Structured play includes adults guiding children in activities. Unstructured play

includes children making up play as they go (unstructured free play outside is called

nature play). Both are important. This week I’ll discuss unstructured play.

Keep it Simple

Do it outside. Choose a natural area where kids are free to explore, play and relax – even to cause a little minor damage. A few scratches and dirt are no cause for alarm. The space does not need to be large, but should have natural features such as rocks, dirt, trees, mud, flowers, water and bugs. You don’t need to travel far, most of this can be found in the backyard, the empty lot across the street or even the nearby park.

Kids do it. Free play is when kids get to “make it up as they go.” Adult supervision is fine and necessary for all child care, but adult intervention should be limited. Then, children can use their own imagination to create play. If the site is naturally rich, they’ll find plenty to do with nature - digging, wading, picking, catching, smelling, climbing – not just in nature.

Do it often. The greatest impact of nature play comes when it is a regular part of

children’s lives. Do it over and over again, no matter the weather.

Do it cheap. You can do this on a budget. No extra materials are really needed. If

something is recommended, it is usually found around the house.

Nature Play Ideas

Although it is a little longer than usual, this blog post is packed full of useful ideas for you to keep handy. You may not be able to or needing to do all of the things on the list below, but depending on your individual situation, one or more of these ideas might work for your family.

Digging Pit: Using kid-sized shovels, let them dig holes and tunnels! Dirt digging pits will miraculously turn into mud puddles after a rain, but kids won’t mind.

Dirt Pile: Just plain old dirt. The larger the pile, the more fun and creative play will be. It will inevitably get muddy and messy, but kids will have even more fun!

Leaves: Rake the fallen leaves into giant piles and let the kids have at ‘em! They even like to do some of the raking!

Water: Kids love water play! Provide water from multiple sources if possible: a hose, faucet, sprinkler, rotating sprayer, rain barrel, hand pump or even just spray bottles.

Water Transport: Part of the fun of water play is moving it around! Use watering cans, buckets, hollow bamboo poles, plastic pipe (with curves and connectors), plastic gutter sections, pots and pans, recycled milk jugs, etc. Kids can gather water from a faucet, hose or rain barrel to collect it.

Sand: Lots of it! Contained by shrubs, landscape timbers, old tires used as planters, boardwalks, whatever. Have a source of water nearby because sand becomes really great for artistic play when it’s wet.

Plants: Grow plants in beds, giant pots, window boxes, old tires and grow vines up trellises and trees. Choose plants for species diversity, various colors, different heights and textures and strong fragrances.

Rocks and Boulders: Let kids build with rocks that are small enough to carry around, but too large to throw.

Logs: Just lay one or more large logs on the ground for balancing, sitting and hiding. Stake them in place or partially bury them so they can’t roll unexpectedly. Lay several together in an end-to-end zig-zag to produce a nice challenge course! Add some soft fall surface around them, just in case.

Tunnels: You can create tunnels by growing gourds, beans, cucumbers or squash over a row of store bought trellis arches. Planting willow “whips” (cut, straight stems) in parallel lines and tie the tops together as they grow. Willow stems are flexible when young, so its easy to shape them with twine, wire or posts.

Hills and Berms: Children love small, grassy hills that they can roll down, charge up, sled on, hide behind or use for “king or queen of the mountain!” If you have such a slope, plant it with tough, hardy grass and keep it clear for uninhibited play.

Sunflower House: Plant sunflower seeds in a large circle in spring, leaving a space for an entry. Then, as the sunflowers grow into a tee-pee shape, lay a blanket on the floor and let the kids play in their “secret” place.

Adventure Paths: Create very narrow, meandering routes through tall grass, between boulders or just connecting two activity areas. Use small stepping stones, “tree cookies” (log slices), wood planks or just dirt or mulch. If the path leads to a “secret” nook, all the better!

Discovery Board: Lay a piece of scrap plywood, roughly 2 feet square on the ground in a quiet, vegetated corner of your play area. Leave it for a couple days and then periodically check to see what’s moved into the micro-habitat underneath! You can find pill bugs, ants, slugs, millipedes, and other mini-beasts with kid appeal! Always put the board back in the same spot.

Loose Parts for Outdoor Construction Play: Use small logs, large wooden blocks, boards, branches and tree cookies for outdoor construction play. You can also add sticks, milk crates, tarps, sheets of cardboard, blankets, pine cones, corn stalks and reeds for more variety.

Toys and Tools: Keeping a variety of toys and tools around can help kids explore and play with nature. Include items like insect nets, bug houses, magnifiers, binoculars, spades, scoopers, sieves, colanders, buckets, rakes, small plastic containers, pots and pans, watering cans, etc.

With spring right around the corner it is a great time to get outside! Don’t be shy – share some of your favorite ideas so we can learn from each other. Next week we will visit about structured activities to try with children next week.

Ideas taken from Green Heart Institute for Nature in Childhood:


A Parents’ Guide to Nature Play

Minnesota Children and Nature Connection

Child and Nature Network