And if the garden is all we have: Ideas for nature play at home

When we talk about connecting with nature, getting ourselves and our children outdoors, we often imagine wild swims in hidden natural pools, challenging hikes along stunning coastline or, at the very least, a run around a National Trust property. But there are many reasons why people might find it difficult to get out like this. They may not have the time or funds, their location might make it difficult, their health may limit their mobility or their families may need to work up to spending more time outside.

This week I’ve been collaborating with Multicultural Motherhood on the #7daysofoutdoorplay challenge on Instagram (along with Wild Wood Childhood, Eagle Homeschool, The Family Collective and The Natural Montessorian) and I’ve had a lot of messages from people telling me that they wish they lived somewhere as beautiful as Cornwall and that it’s just not that easy for them to access wild spaces.

I totally appreciate that we are fortunate to live here, and to have a car and be able to afford fuel to go places. I’m also not going to downplay the benefits of spending time by the sea and in areas of natural beauty. However, I do want to encourage you that if you happen to have a garden, time spent out there matters.

In fact, when we lived in Bristol, our garden was our main outdoor space, partly because I was struggling with a lot of anxiety so going to unknown places or continually reaching out to make arrangements with people presented obstacles I was not yet prepared to deal with, and partly because I was either pregnant or in the baby haze for much of my time there. The garden had to count.

We still make the most of our (very small) garden now. If the weather’s not inspiring or someone’s unwell or we need to spend some time home for whatever reason, it helps to have a few ideas that will take us out there so we’ve still spent some of our day outdoors.

And this is crucial. Time outdoors is essential for our physical and mental health as well as our children’s development. Even if it’s just a case of getting some sun on your skin (albeit through the clouds in this country) and some mud between your toes, time in the garden can go some way to countering the nature-deficit we’ve developed culturally.

With that in mind, I want to share a few things that we get up in our garden, which will perhaps give you some ideas to inspire your nature play at home.

Lead by example

Unsurprisingly, my children almost universally never respond to random suggestions that they go out into the garden. They might if I point out something really cool they might find out there (“Why don’t you check if there’s any frogspawn in the bucket?” For some reason frogs think that’s a good spot to lay them) but generally they’ll meet the idea with resistance, even though they like being out there.

That’s because they want to be where I am – or at least where the people are. I understand that. When I’m working at night, I prefer to hang out where Laurence is, though even his breathing distracts me. So if I want them to spend time in the garden, I have to go out there too, which means I need to designate a purpose for being out there. In warmer seasons, this is easy to do. I could take a book or some crochet out there. When it’s cold or wet… not so much.

So, I’ve taken to heading out to do some weeding. Not a lot, as my overgrown garden will attest, but enough to be out there and busy. Gardening generally has the benefits of putting us in touch with what’s happening in the natural world of our garden – surprise surprise. The more we do it, the more we want to do and kids have a habit of listening to what they see us value over what we tell them we do.

Even hanging the laundry or giving the patio a sweep will often draw my kids out, though, so you can start small if you need to work your way up to something like weeding. And if you do, you have my total empathy.

Get muddy

I know this is a tough spot for a lot of people but contact with dirt and mud is so good for all of us. Our microbiomes benefit massively from contact with the bacteria in dirt and spending time with earth between our fingers and toes has even been linked to helping fight depression.

This could look like gardening but it could also involve a mud kitchen. As someone daunted by the complex mud kitchens I’ve seen shared on Pinterest, I thought I’d encourage you with my relatively pathetic offering: a wooden table and some old stuff from our kitchen. It’s not at all picturesque but our kids love it. Many a happy mud cake has been made in our rubbish mud kitchen.

If mud making it into the house hits a pressure point for you, why not keep wellies and salopettes by the door and agree on some ground rules for taking them off when they come back in?

Share ownership

If you want kids to spend time in the garden, I think it’s so important to let them own the space. It’s easy for us as adults to get precious about gardens as an extension of our homes but children, rightly, do not respond well to control. Talk with them about what you want to do as a family, ask for their ideas and even write down what you and they consent to together.

If possible, give them a section of the garden to treat as their own. My kids really wanted to dig, so I’ve agreed with them on a spot that the limit the digging to. That said, they didn’t understand where I meant so the hole hasn’t wound up quite where I wanted it to but learning to let go of things like that is beneficial to me too.

We involve them in decisions for the garden. For instance, there’s an overgrown bush which really could do with cutting back but they’ve asked us to leave it because it makes a great hideout. They also help with choosing and planting flowers in pots and have requested a small wildflower patch as a garden of their own. We talked about painting a mural in our last house but I’m hoping we’ll actually manage it here. Being invested in the space makes them more likely to want to spend time there.

Give them real tools

So often, we share great ideas with kids but don’t give them the proper tools to really enjoy acting on them. Working with real tools like hammers and nails or whittling knives lend themselves well to being outside, with that bit more space and less worry about the mess. Ophelia got a shovel for her birthday and is finding digging with it truly satsifying.

Making things for the garden allows children to continue to own the space. We’re talking bird feeders, a bug hotel, wind chimes, weather stations, fairy houses – you could even design and build a playhouse together or if they’re game, they might even do it on their own. But if they don’t have real tools or are limited to kits that possibly don’t stand up to the elements, they’ll wind up frustrated and quickly lose interest.

Tune in to the little things

There is often so much nature to be noticed in even a concrete garden. Are the daisies out yet for making daisy chains? Can you spot any ants? Has a dandelion made its way into a wall? What are the clouds doing? What is that insect called? Even noticing where the sun is in the sky, measuring rainfall in a rain gauge or trying a snail race can help you get in sync with the many little changes that happen throughout the year.

We’ve dipped in and out of a nature curriculum called Exploring Nature with Children for a few years now and when I first started using it, we did none of the nature walks and instead tried to find everything in our garden.

This is really an area where leading by example goes a long way. If you spend time trying to identify the birds that visit your garden, you may just find your kids have questions about them you never expected. Keeping child-friendly guide books handy can help. Observing nature enriches children’s play by helping them engage all their senses.

It can help them maintain their impulse to pause and notice things, which will hold them in good stead when they grow up as they’ll be able to mindfully approach their environments, finding the bright spot in every day, small moments of beauty that could otherwise be easily missed. I truly think this is a cornerstone practice of longterm contentment.

But it can’t be forced or even taught in the conventional sense. We need to lead by example, encourage interest where we see it (“Shall we Google that?”) and give kids lots of uninterrupted time.

Move indoor activities into the garden

Could we move what we’re doing indoors out into the garden so kids are more likely engage with the garden and play there? This is easiest to do in the summer months but not impossible when it’s colder (though admittedly tricky if wet) once you’re suited up for the occasion.

Big sheets of paper or easels can be set up outside with paint. Toys can find new life outdoors among the plant pots. I sometimes take my guitar out into the garden, though not enough! Talitha will sometimes opt to practice her violin out there if we either come out or leave the door open. Our garden bench sometimes replaces the sofa for read aloud sessions and a picnic makes for a fantastic alternative to lunch at the dining table.

Go wilder

Sometimes it helps to really shake things up, especially if you’re all feeling a bit uninspired. I find outdoor adventure books or forest school and nature charity websites can throw up some brilliant ideas. Even thinking about what we’d do if we went camping is a good starter. In fact, you could go camping in your garden.

If you’re able to source a fire pit you could make dampers right in your backyard. Or you could get a tarpaulin and let them try making a den – particularly rewarding if it’s raining and you bring out a flask of hot chocolate. It’s easy to think that you need to go somewhere to have an adventure but there’s so much to be said for loving the place you find yourself in.

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