Our family has had to make huge adjustments since the beginning of this pandemic, and I know that we’re not alone. Families across the country and around the world are in similar situations, suddenly surprised to find themselves at home all the time with children underfoot.
“I don’t know what to do,” an exasperated mom recently confided in me. “I can’t entertain my child all day long. I need to get some work done!”
I know the feeling, and maybe you do too. Parents are scrambling for ideas to keep their kids busy. I’m definitely grateful for the plethora of ideas and resources being shared. However, there’s one activity that is simple to plan, free, safe, and incredibly beneficial for our children during this pandemic: unstructured nature play!
Yes! Unstructured nature play is still safe
Unstructured nature play is when children play freely in and with nature. It can happen in your backyard, an open field, uncrowded beaches, forests, creeks, ponds, empty lots in the city, and anywhere else where you can find open nature away from other people and close to home.
What makes unstructured nature play safe during a pandemic is that it occurs away from playgrounds and crowds, both of which are not recommended right now. And there’s more: unstructured nature play protects our children’s health and well-being.
Nature play keeps our children physically active
Now that sports, dance classes, gymnastics, martial arts, and seemingly everything else is put on hold, we can use unstructured nature play to help our kids stay active. In nature, children can jump, run, climb, hop, toss, kick, squat, and spin—and often without adult prompting. Nature play also increases vitamin D levels, which helps children develop strong bones.
Nature play improves our children’s emotional well-being
My children, like many others, are experiencing feelings of stress and anxiety right now. Nature offers them space to process these feelings. According to researchers, spending time playing in nature helps children reduce stress and anxiety, improve focus, increase impulse control, and improve self-esteem.
Related read: 39 fun ways kids can play outside this spring
Nature play helps our children develop social skills
With school, playdates, and social gatherings on pause, parents are worried about their children’s social skills. While kids can use video calls to connect with friends, playing in nature builds social skills too.
Nature provides space for kids with siblings to learn how to cooperate, share, and negotiate on their own. Even single children can develop social skills during nature play by sharing their nature discoveries with a parent or their friends over the phone or video chat.
Unstructured nature play also helps children learn kindness and compassion. When kids spend time in nature, they learn that our planet is a beautiful place that needs their gentle care. Encourage them to be kind to bugs, plants, trees, and critters, and to leave no trace of garbage or waste behind.
Nature play stimulates children’s creativity and problem-solving skills
Nature is filled with unique objects that can be transformed into props or games. A stick can be a wand, a rod, a conducting stick, a shovel, a sword, a telescope… the options are endless! Playing in nature invites children to use their imagination and their problem-solving skills in unique and surprising ways and it often works best without parent involvement (although attentive supervision is important for some risky play activities).
Try to fit in a little nature play every day
It will take time to adjust to this new normal, and that’s alright. In our family, we’ve been trying to incorporate unstructured time in nature into each day, whenever possible. Sometimes my children play in our small backyard and other times we walk to a nearby nature space.
Getting out isn’t always easy. Sometimes my kids balk at the idea, but I have noticed that our days are much more pleasant when they get in a little outdoor play every day. In nature, there are so many wonders waiting to be explored!
Photos courtesy of Josée Bergeron.