How to Connect Children With the Natural World in Your Own Backyard

A girl runs across a log
Once you tackle your own backyard, keep on going. You can help create public play spaces that more children can enjoy. Mark Harris, Frozentime Images Photography/'Nature Play at Home'

People of a certain age have fond memories of playing in nature as children – scaling a fence at a nearby farm to climb apple trees and eat the fruit while perched on a sturdy branch, building forts in woods near their homes, picking wildflowers in fields or roadside ditches for their moms, walking with a fishing pole to a nearby pond. They also remember that their parents weren't always sure or even particularly concerned about exactly where they were at any given moment.

Those natural spaces have largely disappeared in many towns and cities. In their places are sprawling subdivisions, roads, and highways clogged with cars, trucks, and delivery vans and malls surrounded by asphalt seas of parking lots. And free time to roam and explore? It's been replaced with structured time overseen by parents who are often terrified to let their children out of their sight, sometimes with good reason.

Nature Play at Home, book by Nancy Striniste
Cover of Nature Play at Home by Nancy Striniste. Timber Press

Nancy Striniste grew up in those "good old days." A landscape designer and educator who specializes in creating sustainable, natural play and learning spaces, she founded EarlySpace to bring them back. EarlySpace is based in Arlington, Virginia, and, as her website explains, she works with schools, churches, municipalities, childcare centers, and parents "to connect children to nature through good design that is deeply informed by an understanding of child development principles of sustainable landscaping."

Her book, "Nature Play at Home: Creating Outdoor Spaces That Connect Children With the Natural World" ($24.95), offers inspiring ideas and illustrated step-by-step instructions for creating natural child play and learning spaces that parents can undertake in their own yards. Striniste also explains in the book how parents can work with school administrators, church leaders, parks managers, and others to create similar spaces in the places where children spend most of their time.

Children need nature: An idea that's catching on

two kids play in a pile of leaves
Simple is the name of the game when it comes to natural play areas. Jennifer Shores and Gilbert Carmichael/'Nature Play at Home'

Striniste traces her interest in creating child-friendly outdoor spaces primarily to two things: a great childhood growing up in Western Massachusetts where she played outside a lot, and an "ah-ha!" moment as an undergraduate at Wheelock College in Boston in an early childhood education class when the professor showed slides from a trip to Sweden where she visited childcare centers. "This was in the '70s, and it was just a huge epiphany for me to realize that spaces for children could be beautiful. That set me on a path of being fascinated by the design of spaces for children and the idea that the space could be the curriculum."

Nancy Striniste
Nancy Striniste author. Timber Press

She set out on that path by working with infants and toddlers creating indoor spaces filled with natural materials for them to explore, then shifted to creating outdoor spaces as magical as the indoor ones when she realized that children were spending more time inside than outside. Finally, she expanded her interest to outdoor play spaces in the community at large when she lived in a co-housing community.

Her belief in the value of nature play appears to be catching on. She's seeing what she thinks is the indication of a trend in parents and professionals awakening to the fact that children need nature. She teaches a class in landscape design for educators in the nature-based early childhood graduate certificate program at Antioch University New England, where her students are often teachers in public schools. She loves to hear about the programs they are creating, such as Forest Fridays, where classes of preschoolers and elementary students spend whole days in the woods.

Her excitement stems from much more than wanting children to have the same types of outdoor experiences she enjoyed as a child. She knows that children benefit in both their physical and emotional health when they experience nature. "It is so powerful for children to be outdoors," she said. "There is so much research about what is actually happening in their brains and to their stress levels when they are having those breaks outside."

As an example, she points out that researchers have found that being outside reduces the amount of conflict between children and symptoms of Attention Deficit Disorder. She also thinks time spent in nature builds immunities and reduces the occurrence of some health issues such as allergies and asthma. "And now we're learning that it even has positive effects on vision," she said. "The increased amount of screen time is directly related to the growing number of kids who are nearsighted. There are some very exciting studies that show that spending time in nature can help to remediate that. Being outside in natural light and where kids' eyes are focused at a distance and on everything in between rather than on things up close is good for children's developing eyesight."

Another study that Striniste finds compelling is one about bacteria in the soil called Mycobacterium vaccae. The study found that when your skin comes in contact with this bacteria or you breathe it in, it produces serotonin in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for reducing depression and enhancing the ability to learn.

It's sometimes called the "happiness hormone. "I think research like this is really inspiring for people to hear," she said. In fact, as she writes in the book, she knows a teacher who gave her kindergartners a homework assignment of touching the earth every day so that they would pause to experience nature. The lesson for parents, she added, is that it's not the worst thing in the world when their children get dirty or muddy or come home with a bump, bruise, or scrape.

Backyard nature play projects

Kids play with pizza box pavers
Pizza box pavers are created from pizza boxes, ready-mix concrete and fresh leaves, and they'll provide hours of entertainment. Nancy Striniste/'Nature Play at Home'

The nature play projects Striniste discusses in step-by-step detail in the book feature simple things that are cost-effective and don't require special skills to complete. Some examples include using sections of downed trees for climbing; creating paver stepping stones using pizza boxes, ready-mix concrete and fresh leaves for decorations; making a hut from wood posts; and creating natural features such as a brush pile to attract wildlife or building a simple bird blind to watch birds.

There are lots of ideas in the book for natural play spaces that parents can create in addition to the projects. Striniste has several bits of advice that she hopes will put to rest any fears adults might have about how well they can pull off a backyard project. A fail-safe way to start thinking about projects, she said, is to just think about what you enjoyed doing outdoors as a child. Even better, she added, is that "I don't think that there is any single right way to do this in your own yard." Essentially, the projects just need to fit your space and match your children's interests.

Some general tips for DIY projects that are an easy way to start and have tremendous play value involve "loose parts" or a digging space.

Loose parts can be all kinds of things, including natural elements or manufactured ones such as buckets and shovels. "We make tree cookies by slicing up branches and stumps and tree parts of different diameters," explains Striniste. "Kids can use those for building and playing. I think loose parts are incredibly popular because they give children a sense of control over their space by giving them the opportunity to create portions of the space and change the space and come up with an idea and execute it. That's empowering for children, and it's a great way for them to learn problem-solving skills, express themselves, and be creative. Also, there's a tremendous amount of play value to digging places, whether that's sand or dirt or a mix of sand and dirt, especially when you add water. Both of these are open-ended creative, sensory kind of activities that are endlessly engaging."

Nancy Striniste and kids play on a pile of dirt
When Nancy Striniste and her family lived in a co-housing community, the kids were always drawn to the fresh piles of dirt brought in as the area was being improved. Here she plays with the kids on one such pile in 1999. Nancy Striniste

One other thing she discovered about play spaces for children is how incredibly simple they can be. She realized this while living in the co-housing community when her children were young and the community was under construction. She remembers that there was always a truckload of something being delivered, whether it was mulch, topsoil, fill dirt, or gravel. (In fact, that's her at right, playing with kids in the co-housing space in 1999.) "They would dump it somewhere in the community, and it was just fascinating for me to see what a magnet those piles were for children. I think that is an inexpensive, easy way to provide a lot of play value in your backyards. Just get a truckload of sand or dirt delivered so you have a hill the children can climb and dig in and enjoy the sensory experience of getting up high and having a different view of their space. All those things come from just having a big mound in the yard for children to play on."

Don't stop in your own backyard

Whatever projects you decide are best for your children and your space, Striniste urges you to take what you've learned to help create natural play spaces beyond your own backyard. She wants you to talk with leaders in your children's daycare centers, schools, places of worship and to park administrators to be advocates for creating outdoor spaces that benefit the community at large.

Striniste is a firm believer that one person can make a difference, and she writes in the book about a client named Julie as evidence. An attorney who Striniste describes as working for justice in her job and her personal life, Julie was disappointed in one aspect of her children's move from a child care center to a public school. The child care center had a natural play space, but the public school's playground lacked any natural features. Julie stepped in and, as Striniste writes, "six years and two beautiful courtyards later, the school is a model for outdoor space ... thanks to Julie's tireless advocacy, fundraising, and hands-on the ground."

If you're looking for fuel to fire your own advocacy, Striniste suggests sharing research about the benefits of natural play spaces on young minds and bodies with community leaders. She pointed to three places to start finding that research: the Children in Nature Network, which curates and summarizes peer-reviewed scientific literature to help build the evidence base for advancing the children and nature movement; Green Schoolyards America, a national organization started by a colleague and friend of hers, Sharon Danks in Berkley, California, that expands and strengthens the green schoolyard movement and empowers Americans to become stewards of their school and neighborhood environments; and her EarlySpace website and the related social media sites, including the site's Facebook page. "As new studies come out, I share a lot of research as well as projects that I am doing and photographs of spaces that I am designing on my Facebook page." You can also follow her on Instagram at EarlySpaceNancy.

Striniste's ultimate vision is the same as the leaders of the native plant movement who dream of homeowners, neighborhoods, and communities banding together and planting native plants that create connected habitat corridors for wildlife. "I think we can take that same idea and create contiguous areas for nature play, whether it's people taking down their fences and sharing their backyards or connecting schoolyards and parks and backyards for providing safe places where parents feel comfortable letting their kids roam a little bit."

If communities committed to nature play for children would band together, they could create what Striniste said we know children need, access to wild spaces and to nature, just like people of a certain age remember from their childhoods.