The magic of unstructured nature play for kids
The first rule of Play Club is that you do not talk about Play Club. The second rule? There are no rules. Children need wild, unstructured nature play. Here’s what parents and caregivers need to know.
Unlike structured physical activities, such as a game of soccer, there are no goals (pun intended).
“Unstructured play happens when children follow their instincts, ideas, and interests without an imposed outcome,” explains the Canadian Public Health Association (CPHA). According to the CPHA, benefits for kids include
“Access to active play in nature ... is essential for healthy child development,” reports a position statement released by 14 Canadian organizations. “We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in childcare, the community, and nature.”
It’s these benefits that encouraged Marie-Andree Racine, a mother in Squamish, BC, to launch The Little Explorers. More than 400 families joined in the first few months.
Together, they bike, camp, hike, and more. There’s an underlying purpose—to explore and answer the call of the wild—but Racine notes one important principle.
“We always let the kids lead,” she explains. Five minutes into a recent hike, the children found a puddle they wanted to splash in for the rest of the afternoon. “We never set a goal, we just say, ‘start here’ and see where we’re going to end up.”
The thought of my toddler chasing his imagination through the forest sounds a little hazardous, yet that’s all part of it. “We don’t allow anything too dangerous, but little bruises and scratches are good,” says Racine. “Kids need to do, in order to learn. We let them run free and challenge them.”
Change your mindset. Researchers suggest thinking in terms of “as safe as necessary” instead of “as safe as possible.”
Offer suggestions, not rules. “Maybe put your foot there,” you could suggest if they’re climbing a rock. “Whoa, have you seen what’s under that log?” you might ask on a hike.
Pause ... Instead of rushing to save them from a situation, see what happens. “Trust your kids,” suggests Racine. “If they want to climb the tree, let them. You can go behind them to spot them, and you’ll see what they’re actually capable of. They’ll often surprise us. Kids can do so much more than we think they can do.”
Risky unstructured play, such as running at a fast speed or climbing to a tall height, helps kids learn how to navigate their environment and make safe choices.
“If you live in a city, you don’t have to drive two hours to a national park,” laughs Racine.
For instance, some of Racine’s friends do scavenger hunts in city parks, or build crafts out of leaves, sticks, and other natural goodies they might have found on a walk downtown.
“Start by keeping it simple, and just give your kids a little fun mission,” says Racine. Then, follow their lead and let them pursue whatever catches their eyes.
From butterfly gardens to purposefully uneven ground, cities and schools are incorporating unstructured nature play into urban design and playgrounds. A group of researchers and designers created outdoorplaybook.ca to offer action plans and numerous ideas if you want to be an advocate to your municipality and school district.
OutsidePlay.ca This online tool offers ideas and the confidence you need to engage children in outdoor unstructured play.
Child & Nature Alliance of Canada Connect children and youth with the great Canadian outdoors through playtime and education.
International Play Association Canada This national nonprofit promotes playtime as a child’s right.
Joshua Duvauchelle is a regular alive contributor. joshduv.com