Nature-based play helps kids learn about and love the natural world around them
By Elizabeth González
In the Gaffield Children’s Garden at Matthaei Botanical Gardens, children connect directly and powerfully to the natural world in a kid-friendly setting. This experience—nature play—is the philosophy behind the garden. It’s the kind of play that opens up alternatives to the “standard, cookie cutter metal and plastic structures that make up the bulk of today’s playgrounds,” according to the National Wildlife Federation.Nature play spaces “incorporate the surrounding landscape and vegetation to bring nature to children’s daily outdoor play and learning environments.
Nature play steps away from conventional classroom learning to immerse kids in nature through hands-on activities. The children’s garden coordinator, Lee Smith Bravender, aims to create a space for children that is hands-on and fully engaged with the senses. With this philosophy in mind and to make this as meaningful and as real as possible for the children who visit Matthaei, we planted the children’s garden with plants of different scents, colors, and leaf textures, along with some that are edible for visitors to taste. There are also spaces in the garden for children to build structures made from old tree limbs and an area for mud play.
The Gaffield Children’s Garden offers kids the opportunity for
some old-fashioned fun that’s also good for them, like this
digging pit.

Builder’s garden structure in the Gaffield
Children’s Garden. (Photo by Liz Gonzalez.)

Mud play pies in the GaffieldChildren’s Garden.
(Photo by Liz Gonzalez.)

One of the goals of nature play is for children to develop a bond, love, and respect for nature. David Sobel, an education writer at Antioch University New England, believes that if children establish a good relationship with nature through play and exploration they are more likely to care about the environment when they are older and want to find ways to live sustainable lives and support initiatives that are good for the planet. In a powerful observation from his book Beyond Ecophobia, Sobel writes, “If we want children to flourish we need to give them time to connect with nature and love the Earth before we ask them to save it.” Taking into consideration these philosophies we hope that the children and families who visit the Gaffield Children’s Garden will create their own adventures and interact with nature in a way that turns play into learning.

Nature Pop-up Programs One More Way for Kids to Connect with Nature
Last summer Lee, staff, interns, and volunteers helped develop and implement a series of nature-pop activities. The free pop-ups were held on Monday mornings throughout the summer. Kids enjoyed hands-on fun while parents discovered simple ways to encourage creative nature play at home. The pop-ups are free. Suggested ages are 3-7 years.
List of summer 2017 pop-ups:
Kids digging for treasure in a nature-play pop-up on June 12, 2017.
June: Seashell Dig; Digging for Treasure; Building Wee Fairy Houses; Bubbles!;  July: Nature Painting; Digging for Treasure; Stacked Stones Towers; Cutting Garden Bouquets; August: Soil Insect Exploration; Leaf Safari; Cutting Garden Bouquets; Digging for Treasure.

Liz González

Liz González, from Detroit, recently graduated from the University of Michigan with a B.S. in anthropology and two minors in ecology and evolutionary biology and the environment. She plans to pursue an M.P.H. in epidemiology in the future; her main interests are the relationship between zoonotic vectors and human infectious diseases and the role nature interaction plays in human mental health. She enjoys backpacking and traveling! Liz’s internship was made possible by Ann Arbor Farm & Garden.