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Books to Inspire Outdoor Play & Learning


“Nature offers us a sanctuary, a place where, we can find peace and wonder…. For children it is the greatest playground of all, with all its diverse structures, smells, textures, its creatures of all shapes and sizes, its abundant plants, some edible, others toxic. Nature offers a myriad of opportunities for risk taking, for a wealth of learning and amazement, and for freedom, separate from the adult world.”
(from Play the Forest School Way by Peter Houghton & Jane Worroll)


I’d like to share a few details about the books that I have lately been drawing inspiration from—books that inspire us as parents to get our children outdoors, and books that provide some wonderful ideas on HOW to actually do that, especially if it does not come naturally or easy.


For clarity, I have organized my stack of nature books into three categories:

  1. Books on why nature engagement matters, which are books to enjoy reading cover to cover
  2. Books with action-steps and specific ideas for creating outdoor play environments  in your own backyard, engaging with the natural world, and cultivating independence in nature
  3. Books for nature study, which means providing a closer look at the natural world, things you may observe and want to explore further as you get out in nature

So, with that, here we go…


Last Child in the Woods

Much has already been said about this book. If you haven’t already read it, I’m sure you have heard of it. This would be my number one pick for a nature-inspired book to read cover to cover. Most other books in this same category will reference Richard Louv at some point. It is just a great place to start if you have never before really considered nature engagement as a daily, practical thing for your family.

How to Raise A Wild Child

This book draws from many of the same themes developed in Last Child in the Woods, and Sampson admits to it. I do think this had a little added focus on experiential discovery, and the role of the parent in guiding our children to fall in love with nature. I will say the latter part of this book gets a little repetitive, so some friendly skimming may be involved.

Balanced and Barefoot

Angela Hanscom comes to the conversation with an occupational therapy perspective — in the book she discusses the effects of restricted movement and lack of outdoor playtime  on overall sensory and motor development in children. This book reveals the therapeutic importance of uninterrupted independent outdoor play. I was stunned, enlightened, and inspired reading this. This book would be an essential read for anyone in the occupational therapy field or parents of children with various disabilities and/or chronic illness.

There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather

News flash: Sweden does the “kids in nature” thing way better than anyone else. This can be a bit depressing, in a way. What this book has going for it is it’s readability–it is lively, insightful, and engaging. This is from a mom figuring it out. There are “tips” at the end of each chapter that summarize how the Swedes do it and also a few interspersed practical tips (like what kind of clothing to buy) that do allow for this book to have a something to walk away with. That way you are not just sitting there thinking “I don’t live in Sweden, so what the heck can I do about it?”

Honorable Mention:

  • The Nature Fix  — This is a great read for analyzing the science behind the human’s connection to the natural world, but it is not focused on children–though, the final chapter does bring in this topic a little bit (and of course references Richard Louv). This book is neither diagnostic nor prescriptive and should not be compared to Last Child in the Woods–it is not trying to do the same thing. It is more an interesting take on modern day science as it relates to human health and nature.


First I want to share on online article that has great inspiration and a nice checklist for creating an outdoor play space for children:

Wilson discusses the value of loose parts in outdoors playgrounds and the difference between a manufactured play space versus a natural one. At the end of the article is a “Checklist for Evaluating an Outdoor Play Setting for Young Children” which I found to be really helpful when I started drawing up my plan for our own yard play space. This gave me some great new ideas!

Play the Forest School Way

This book has a wide range of ideas for nature play. Many of these activities you may have already seen on Pinterest, BUT the attention to detail provided here is so wonderful and helpful. It can be especially useful for those of you that have nature exploration groups or do more of a classroom style learning outdoors. That said, the ideas at the beginning for games and crafts are absolutely doable for my 4 and almost-3 year old, and I plan to do several with them this spring. An essential book for a nature-engaged family.

A Year of Forest School

This book is a new companion book to Play the Forest School Way with lots of similar but new ideas! This book is grouped by seasons, which I really appreciate.

The Nature Connection

This book has a myriad of hands-on activities and observational exercises aimed at children 8 to 13. It certainly is for the whole family though! With a 4 and almost-3 year old I’m obviously not going to have them go through this workbook and do all the activities and write down their observations. However, I draw so many great ideas for WHAT and HOW to observe nature. Clare Walker Leslie is basically my hero. She really brings the nature thing down to an everyday level that is so inspiring.

The Backyard Play Revolution

This book has specific practical ways to transform your own backyard into a natural play kid-friendly area, with lists of ideas for loose parts and how to build up your supply. The author even provides suggestions for alternative materials–for example, when sticks from a forest are not easily accessible, what can you use instead? The book contains ideas for what to do with a rope or old tire and how to hunt for items at garage sales that can be used in your backyard for open-ended play. So fun!

Nature’s Art Box

Nature art ideas! So many great ideas with loads of photos so you aren’t left with any questions as you read the instructions. The age range here is wide, but many of the projects would need adult supervision for littles. I will say a couple of the projects seemed like something I would never do, but overall I really enjoy the ideas here.

Vitamin N

A follow up to Last Child in the Woods. So, honestly this book can be super overwhelming! There are so many ideas: 500, actually. So, my strategy here is to just kind of read through it a bit at a time if I am in the mood and pick ONE thing that sticks out to me as something I can do. I appreciate that this book focuses not solely on the individual family but tries to find ways in which we can come together as communities and improve the state of “nature-deficit disorder.”


  • The Stick Book – Many ideas here are pretty intuitive to me here but this is a nice thing to flip through if you are in a bit of a rut for play ideas. Lots of photos to show you the ideas–I showed this to my 4 year old and he wanted to create everything in here!
  • I Love Dirt – This book is not just about dirt play! It is about getting outside, quieting down, paying attention to the natural world, and asking questions. The book provides prompts for families to get outside and to explore in such a gentle and meaningful way. I appreciate that this book is less about “doing something” in nature and more about using all our senses to really be present while we are outdoors.
  • Last Child in the Woods is mentioned above for a book to understand the “why?” behind nature engagement: but, at the back of the book is also a massive list of ideas for connecting more with nature. Lots of practical tips that cost nothing and will inspire more and more nature engagement. Don’t be overwhelmed by massive lists like this: pick one thing at a time that sticks out to you and do that.


Nature Anatomy

This book is just a true gem, more field-guide style of a book than on a how-to book. But this can be a great place to start with questions about the natural world & things you see on nature explorations. Right now this is more of a book for me than my kids. I pre-plan what pages we look at together based on what topic is particularly interesting to them at the moment.

How to Be a Wildflower

I dare you to flip through one page of this book and not fall totally in love with Katie Daisy’s artwork. It’s beautiful and inspiring. Not a book to read cover to cover and not really something my children will care about at the moment. This also only have a few pages of “tips” for nature engagement—it’s mostly just a beautiful thing to behold. A coffee-table style book for nature-loving mamas.

Hello, Nature

This book is Nature Anatomy meets adult coloring book. I do not see this having any direct meaningful connection for my kids (4 and almost 3), but I personally am enjoying it. It inspires nature study, some pages are informative and some are more open-ended prompts. Most pages provide invitations to doodle and draw: something an older nature-loving child would adore! Not just for adults.

Later in April there are activity cards similar to this style being released that look fun!

Nature’s Day: Out and About

This pairs with the book Nature’s Day but comes with specific prompts for activities and things to look out for by season. There are several activities for each of the four seasons. Overall this is quite simple, and for that aspect I appreciate it! This book, just like Hello, Nature invites you to write in it.

Outside Your Window: A First Book of Nature

This is a book to inspire young kids to discover the world around them in all the seasons. It’s not a picture book to sit and read with your kids all the way through because it’s too long, but you could pick out a season at a time to enjoy and study further. It feels more like Nature Anatomy meets a poetry book, actually.

The Natural World

This book is a large & awesome reference-style book with a wide range of topics (covering the whole world) and beautiful illustrations. This is not something my kids just flip through to explore often since it is quite extensive, but if we are looking at a specific topic in nature I can usually flip through and find something relevant to what we are learning and read that specific page.


  • Nature All Year Long (This book is a wonderful 12-month guide to “What’s going on in the natural world right now?” I LOVE this book! Again — not a great book for my kids to enjoy, but I personally like pulling it off the shelf when I start to plan out seasonal activities or learning themes.)
  • The Curious Nature Guide (Another one from Clare Walker Leslie which pairs nicely with nature journaling. I appreciate that the focus on the natural world involves being present. Clare Walker Leslie helps inspire me to engage all my senses.)
  • The Handbook of Nature Study (This is a supremely helpful reference for me as we continue to learn about the natural world as a family. I do think you can find all of this information on the internet: but personally I prefer having a physical book to peruse)


Be sure to check out my picture book lists for inspiring a love of the natural world in your read aloud time with your kids.

7 thoughts on “Books to Inspire Outdoor Play & Learning

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