10 tried-and-tested nature play ideas that won’t cost the earth

As the holidays approach, here are 10 tried-and-tested nature play ideas for all the family that won’t cost the earth financially or environmentally.

As the school holidays are well underway, on every parent’s mind will be family days out, activities, and ideas for keeping little hands and minds active, occupied and stimulated throughout their summer break.

For environmentally-conscious parents, there’s the added pressure of ensuring that the activities we choose to do with our children don’t unnecessarily affect the environment.

As an eco-conscious mum myself, I completely understand and share that same burden.

To kickstart your summer activity planning, I’ve compiled a list of ten tried-and-tested nature play activities. The beauty of this list is that every activity is adaptable so that you can tailor them to your space and surroundings. And they won’t cost the earth – financially or environmentally. 

Most importantly, though, they’re good fun. Trust me. My daughter is a harsh critic.

Activities while you’re out and about

1. Nature treasure hunt

My daughter’s always been fascinated by insects and plants, understanding ecosystems, and learning how everything fits together. As a family, we’ve found nature treasure hunting a great way to have those important conversations about the planet and its inhabitants while tapping into her natural curiosity and desire to explore.

We often bring our finds home and use them in natural crafting or add them to our wildflower garden and mow-free lawn, hidden amongst the swaying plants and humming insects.

Our treasures vary with the seasons, from fallen petals and leaves to interesting twigs, seeds, and stones. We take rubbings of those treasures too big to take home, and for those that are too delicate, like wildflowers and toadstools, we take a photo for our memory book.

Whatever the ‘treasure’, it’s sustainably sourced. We always abide by the rules of The Countryside Code and The Woodland Trust’s responsible foraging guidelines.

2. Signs of life’ walk

A fun one wherever you are because, as they say, nature is all around us. You don’t have to look far for signs of life, whether you’re searching for slugs and snails in an urban environment or finding rabbit tracks in a woodland glade.

Encouraging your child to look for signs of biological activity using all five senses really captures their imagination. Before you know it, you may spot signs of mythical creatures in the undergrowth. We’ve spotted unicorn tracks and fairy footprints on several occasions.

3. Pooh-sticks

A nature-play classic immortalised by AA Milne in Winnie the Pooh, pooh-sticks is a beautifully simple game for all the family. All you need is a stream, a stick, and a bridge. You can even play without a bridge if you agree on a start and finish line.

Participants search for and select their stick (always use sticks that have fallen already, never break off living branches) and take their positions on the bridge or bank. The race begins when everyone drops their sticks off the edge of the upstream side of the bridge. Once they’re in the water, everyone rushes to the downstream side to see which one reappears first. The first stick to reach the downstream side is the winner. 

Variations of the game include using pine cones, leaves, and ‘boats’ made of natural materials you find on your walk.

4. Photography

I mentioned above that we love to photograph those treasures we find on our adventures but can’t take home, such as trees, flowers, woodland animals, and insects. 

Photography has been a hobby of mine for many years, so sharing it with my daughter is magical and something I hope to do for many years to come. I use my phone, and she uses a digital camera handed down to her, but you could just as easily use a polaroid or a DSLR if you have one.

Nature play at home

1. Garden Archaeology

I loved History at school, especially learning details about the lives of those who came before us. What better way to uncover stories and secrets than with your very own archaeological dig, using excavation ‘tools’ like old toothbrushes, cutlery, and utensils.

Whatever you use to bury them in, a flower bed, a sandpit, or a cardboard box filled with oats, you can guarantee you’ll have some messy family fun excavating, brushing, and washing the artefacts. You could even make up stories about the people they belonged to.

Our back garden has a rich ‘archaeological’ history. We’ve found Victorian coins, Anglo-Saxon pottery, prehistoric flints, and dinosaur bones during our garden digs.

2. Build a bug hotel

We’ve all seen them in garden centres and the craft kits you can buy online, but bug hotels are easy to make from materials you’ll already have at home or in the garden. The outer casing could be a wooden crate, an old drawer, even an upturned flower pot. As for the innards: try using bamboo canes, corrugated card, bark, dry leaves and sticks, and hollow plant stems.

The idea here is to get your little ones making with their hands. There’s no right or wrong way of doing it, as long as they’re creating little hollows, nooks and crannies for the bugs to hide. Position your hotel in a shaded, damp space in your garden. Leave it alone for a week or two, and you’ll likely spot some resident bugs.

3. Nature arts and crafts

This nature play activity is an excellent follow-on from a nature treasure hunt. And depending on the treasures you find, you can adapt the crafts. 

One of our favourites is a nature collage stuck to paper with homemade glue. We incorporate rubbings, leaves, sticks, seedpods, feathers, flowers, even nature confetti

Once we’ve finished our masterpiece, we put it into our memory scrapbook with an overview of our day’s activities, so we can look back and remember our favourite parts of the day.

4. Nature weaving

After gardening, we use prunings and weeds destined for the compost heap to do some nature weaving. Grasses, reeds and long-stemmed flowers are perfect for this activity, as they’re easy for little hands to work with.

First, make a basic frame using four sticks and some garden twine, or cardboard and rubber bands. Let your child take the lead. If they need help, show them how to thread the leaves through the twine or between the rubber bands, then leave them to create something special independently.

Once their creation is complete, you can save the frame to use another time.

5. Mud pies and nature potions

Simple but effective family fun. Some of my fondest early memories are of being elbow-deep in thick, dark mud and stirring multi-coloured potions filled with petals, leaves, and floating branches. 

My daughter, not so much, so this nature play idea is just for me.

6. Pounded flower printing

This nature play activity requires adult supervision as it’s a bit tricky but great fun all the same.

You’ll need fabric to print onto (a napkin or pillowcase works perfectly), a hard surface, newspapers, wax paper, a mallet, goggles, flowers, and leaves.

Place a thick layer of newspaper over the hard surface to protect it. Add a sheet of wax paper and put your fabric on top (the wax paper prevents ink transfer). Cut flowers from their stems and arrange them on the fabric face down. Once the design is complete, place another layer of wax paper over the top. Pound the entire design with the mallet. Thicker flowers and leaves take more pounding, so bash, bash, bash. Check the fabric periodically, and continue the process until you’re happy with the results. Display your finished design.

For more ideas involving natural dyes, check out KidsGardening.

Ready to play?

There you have it. Buttercup Learning’s ten tried-and-tested nature play ideas that educate, stimulate, and encourage a strong connection to nature, all without an adverse effect on the planet or your bank balance. 

Give them a try, and let us know how you get on. What’s your favourite tried-and-tested nature play activity?

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