Boulder Valley School District

Nature Play reintroduces kids to the outdoors

Sombrero Marsh kids nets
Randy Barber

Many of us fondly remember our childhoods, back when parents would send kids out of the house and tell them 'don’t come home until dinner time.” This time outdoors provided children with many magical opportunities to play– building forts, climbing trees, catching creatures, or sailing sticks down a stream in nearby wild spaces.

Our partners at Thorne Nature Experience are trying to bring this beneficial “nature play” to today’s children, knowing that it is the open-ended, free-time exploration that gives kids memorable, authentic and hands-on experiences that will benefit them their entire lives.

RELATED STORY: Hands-on learning about nature abounds at Sombrero Marsh

Why is Nature Play Important?
A growing body of research shows that frequent play in nature stimulates a child’s development in a number of ways, including:

  • Cognitive/Intellectual - behaviors in a nature play setting such as observation, exploration, and experimenting lay the foundation for academic learning. Best of all, nature play can instill a love of learning that lasts a lifetime.
  • Creative - nature play provides endless opportunities to develop curiosity and imagination, through activities such as pretend play, building, and art to name a few.
  • Physical - nature play activities such as running, jumping, digging, balancing and navigating uneven terrain improve coordination and lead to more healthy and active lifestyles.
  • Social and Emotional - nature play stimulates personal growth such as confidence and a sense of self, as well as social abilities such as taking turns, working together, and team-building.
  • Spiritual - time in nature, especially quiet, calm time, can stimulate a child’s sense of beauty, appreciation, wonder and awe.

This type of play also creates a lasting connection with nature.  In fact, more than 35 years of studies from around the world show that adults are more likely to value and protect the environment if they experienced frequent, unstructured play in wild settings as children.

What has changed since we were kids?
In the past few decades, children’s access to frequent, unstructured nature play has become much less common than when we were kids. Influences such as overscheduled lives, parental fears, urbanization, and technology have had a profound impact on the amount of time children spend outdoors. In fact, studies have shown that American children now spend almost eight hours each day with electronic media versus barely 30 minutes per week in unstructured outdoor play.

Thorne's Approach to Nature Play
To encourage nature play, Thorne has come up with a format for unstructured time in nature.  While it may sound simple, guiding unstructured time in nature requires an active mentorship model that is sensitive to each child and promotes skills like problem-solving, appropriate risk-taking, and navigating emotions. When it is really working, time in nature feels like “play” for children, but there is a tremendous amount of mentoring and learning occurring beneath the surface.

Thorne believes that the following attributes promote the best kind of nature play:

  • The right kind of place – a “wild” nature setting provides a space that is flexible, malleable, diverse, and untamed... in a child’s mind.
  • The right kind of play – nature play is self-directed, intrinsic behavior that is actively engaged in by children during unstructured time in nature that builds upon their sense of wonder.
  • The right kind of mentorship – nature play is supported by mentors who are effective in cultivating this experience through their own enthusiasm and interest in the natural world.
  • The right kind of re-play – nature play requires consistent and frequent experiences that are part of the regular rhythm of life.

CLICK HERE to read Thorne's Wild Nature Play Guidelines.

To read more about the benefits of Nature Play, go to

Thorne Nature Experience has been a partner of the Boulder Valley School District for 18 years, providing a diverse array of environmental education to BVSD students through the following programs: 

In fact, through the Nature Kids program and a generous grant from Great Outdoors Colorado, a new nature play area is being built at Alicia Sanchez International School. We will have more about this project in April.


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