“Giving your children time to engage in free play is like giving them a very special gift–a gfit that keeps on giving, preparing children for adulthood by cultivating and nurturing essential life skills. Play allows children opportunities to get creative, to pratice regulating emotions, to enhance social development, and even to learn about themselves inthe process. Having the ability to play away from the adult world opens up many opportunities and feelings of freedom.” -Angela Hanscom, Balanced and Barefoot (From Restricted Movement to Active Free Play)
About Nature Play
Before diving in to my favorite Nature Play Books, I wanted to first discuss a couple thoughts about nature play:
(1) Nature Play is Born Out of Inactivity
Rich nature play is often born out of inactivity (or boredom).
In this photo my kids are pretending to dig for dinosaur bones in our yard. They came up with the idea. I was sitting and reading my book, then paused to snap a photo and went back to my own thing. I was not a part of it, I don’t get credit for it, and there isn’t really anything astounding for me to do, claim, or share about it.
And the truth is — this, right here, is exactly the kind of nature play that is worthy of celebration! We give the most praise on social media to nature studies, nature arts and crafts projects, nature games, nature learning. All of those things are so beautiful and so worthy of celebrating. Truly.
BUT … nature play is a harder thing to photograph and share, and I think it is because the best kind of nature play is born out of inactivity, not activity. Boredom is a beautiful thing, friends. Boredom is a thing to chase after, not avoid or remedy. Boredom is an opportunity, not a problem to fix.
I wish there were hundreds of moments for me to hit “like” on when parents send their children outside with nothing to do, no agenda. When we reject the idea that our kids must be doing things worthy of a photo. When we reject the idea that we are in charge of stimulating their happiness. When we reject the idea that the ends matter more than the means. When we reject the idea that our kids need a gorgeously scenic nature backdrop to play in in order to live an amazing childhood.
(2) Nature Play Is Self-Directed
Roxaboxen. In my mind this is the ultimate children-at-nature-play book. A celebration of the active imagination at its best. With nothing but nature loose parts & random materials, children can create a dynamic & lasting fantastical world full of shops, houses, jails, and forts. The possibilities are endless.
I wonder if, when we read this, we overlook a simple fact: no adults are present. Think about it. No adults are there snapping or staging photos. No adults are helping dig for treasure. No adults are there giving ideas on how to play with a stick. No adults are making sure the kids look clean and cute. No adults are setting the rules. No adults are fretting over the hurts or managing the conflicts. No adults are a part of the memories.
In nature play, children do not *NEED* to be instructed or managed by adults.
Nature play is mostly self-directed; however, that doesn’t mean adult-directed activities, games, crafts, and nature studies are a bad thing. I believe they just need to be kept in their rightful place.
Books to Inspire Nature Play
So, keeping in mind those two points above, I do still think there is value in the following books that share fun and engaging ways to play in nature. The ideas presented here might not be NEW or something you couldn’t just find searching Pinterest, but I personally love having a physical book to peruse for inspiration instead of scouring the internet with my kids around.
Without further ado, here is my list of favorite books to inspire nature play:
||Play the Forest School Way
This is the first of these types of nature play books that I ever bought. I like that there are nature games well represented here; it’s just just crafts. These games can be done in nature groups which is so inviting. You don’t have to just enjoy nature experiences alone — it can be enjoyed in community. I think this book would be super helpful for a nature group leader as all of the activities are well explained and contain guiding questions and thoughts: “What did you learn? What went wrong? How did you feel doing this activity?” I do think many activities skew for elementary-aged children, not so much for toddlers and preschoolers. Note that there are also only simple line illustrations in this book, no photographs.
||A Year of Forest School
Similar format to Play the Forest School Way but has a few more activities AND this book is organized by the four seasons. At the end of each season are several ideas that come together for a group gathering/celebration: a group game, a craft or activity, and a fun outdoor recipe. I appreciate that many of the activities seem to be geared towards groups of children coming together. If you were to only purchase one of this book or Play the Forest School Way — I’d suggest buying this one. I think overall there’s a better range of ideas in here than the first book.
This book has a lovely balance of nature study + nature play activities. It is organized by the four seasons, and each season has relevant nature processes and flora and fauna to learn about, and then maybe 5-7 activities. I adore the juxtaposition here: on one page there is a spread of different types of leaves and on the next page is a craft to do with leaves—so you can just carry this book outside with you and invite your kids to learn as they create! This reminds me a lot of some of my favorite Clare Walker Leslie books: Nature All Year Long and The Nature Connection. Learning and play can coincide, and that’s a lovely lovely thing.
A review copy of this book was given to me by Quarto Kids but the opinions are my own.
||Sticks and Stones
This book was written by the founder of the lovely Fireflies + Mud Pies. Each activity (using either sticks or or rocks) is described in detail and accompanied nicely with photographs. There’s never a question left on how to do something mentioned in the book. I will say that many activities will require adult supervision–with drilling or sawing involved. But, honestly that is a part of the fun. In the book it’s clear these are all family-friendly activities that can be enjoyed together.
A review copy of this book was given to me by Quarto Kids but the opinions are my own.
||Whatever the Weather
Well, I hate to pick favorites but I genuinely feel that if I could only own one book on this list, it would be this one! This book is a nice pairing with There’s No Such Thing As Bad Weather. The book is divided into four sections: Cold Weather, Rainy Weather, Sunny Weather, and Windy Weather. Obviously sunny days get a lot of attention, but what can we do to play in snow and rain and blustery days? This book has a wealth of truly unique and engaging ideas! The ice/snow ones are some of my favorites–a great inspiration to get out the door even when it takes an hour to bundle everyone up in winter gear!
||I Love Dirt
Many of the ideas here are meant to be open-ended and experiential. Most have no physical product or craft to finish. Rather, the prompts are meant to engage the senses, increase awareness, and stimulate imagination. I think this is a great gateway book for those who want to engage more with nature in simple and mindful ways without sort of the “stress” that material prep brings. You don’t need to gather a bunch of supplies or do any prep work — just go outside and pay attention. I think that thoughtful connection with nature and attentiveness are a great gateway for children to desire to be playing in an outdoor setting.
||The Wild Year Book
This book is organized by four seasons. Each season has roughly 12-15 ideas for crafts, games, and simple nature exploration. I appreciate so much that the activities are concisely explained with engaging real photos and simple steps. Each activity fits on one page in the little book! There are a lot of ideas in here that were new to me that I had not seen already on Instagram or Pinterest, so I appreciate the freshness there.
||The Wild City Book
This book is a friendly reminder that city-dwellers have a wealth of opportunity to give children access to nature. It’s all a matter of perspective. Similar to The Wild Year Book (by the same authors), the activities in here are well presented with real photos (many show kids on asphalt) and concisely explained. I bought this book because I thought many activities would be relevant to us living in a forest, and I was right. I think these activities are not exclusive to an urban setting, and vice-versa with The Wild Year Book
||The Backyard Play Revolution
This book has a wealth of practical ideas and supply lists for creating space for a natural backyard play in your life. It is not forest-school driven, but that is what I love about it! It’s so accessible and creative. I created my own similar list on this blog post if you are interested.
||Nature’s Art Box
Every nature craft idea in here is wonderfully detailed. We have used the clay recipe in here for a number of crafts. There are probably 50-60 different craft ideas in here, categorized by the material which is very helpful. There is also a wonderfully detailed index of helpful nature materials, when and where you can find them, and how to use them. For example, there are 6 detailed pages of plants useful for coloring & painting.
Nature Play Ideas Checklist
Below you’ll find a link to the PDF of this nature play checklist I created for myself.
I have used this for a few years (and updated it this week). I find it is helpful to just glance at every once an awhile and have one or two ideas in the back of my mind that could be fun for us to do that week. I do not see this as a checklist where I feel like we have to do everything here or my kids will have a deprived childhood!
It simply is a list of ideas. Potential. Opportunities. Inspiration.
If you are confused about what something is that I put on here, Pinterest is your friend.
Hopefully it is of use to you!
For Further Inspiration
Forest School Backyard Play Supplies — this is an older blog post and you will see some of the same books there, but I also detailed what our backyard nature supplies look like in that post.
Books to Inspire Outdoor Play And Learning — another old blog post with some of my favorite “Why Nature Engagement Matters” books!
Balanced and Barefoot by Angela Hanscom — this book is all about the myriad of benefits of unrestricted outdoor play. I appreciate that this isn’t just “forest school” but has a broader range of application.
Simplicity Parenting by Kim John Payne — this has nothing to do with. nature play, but this book has principles that align so much with the idea of gifting our children with childhood. The chapter “Filtering Out The Adult World” is especially relevant.
“Yes, daily life in America (or any other country) involves risks and dangers to children. There are perhaps even more risks now than when we were growing up…. Yet, as parents, we need to be more than just our desire to protect, no matter how noble and important that is. We need to live with confidence, to parent with a sense of strength and openness, and perhaps most of all, a sense of humor. The primal urge to protect is our cortisol spigot; I’m suggesting we not invite it to be turned so easily and so often.” -Kim John Payne, Simplicity Parenting