Natural Play: Ditching Fancy
Toys for Sticks and Mud
The more toys do, the less the child
does. But as children ditch their plastic, electronic, and mechanical toys
and play spontaneously with sticks, water, sand, plants, stones, and other
things in their natural surroundings, all of their senses are stimulated,
their minds are engaged, and their imaginations are developing.
This sort of exploration comes naturally
to babies and toddlers. They have an urge to handle things, to gather, dump,
sort, fill, and otherwise manipulate whatever is in their immediate
Children wash up well, so as they get
older, it’s okay for them to get muddy and wet while they continue to
explore themselves and their environments in an open-ended way. As they are
learning about science and the weather, building and exploring, they are
also burning energy, being healthy, and staying calm.
For more articles about children and play,
When I was a child, my favorite pastime
was to build a “tent” with a blanket flung over a card table set up in our
backyard. It was, at various times, a cave, a grand castle, a rabbit hole,
and a tent at the beach...and I often holed up there for days examining the
contents of my mother’s sewing basket or some other treasure, and later with
When my daughters were little children,
one of their favorite things to do was create similar dwellings for
themselves and their dolls using large cardboard boxes. They furnished these
houses with sofas made of logs; tables crafted from smaller cardboard
cartons; dishes made from a variety of natural materials like acorn caps,
shells, and pieces of bark; and arrangements of dried flowers.
They did accumulate their share of LEGO
and Barbies, but we attempted to control the number of plastic toys they
owned, in favor of wood and cloth. And they loved roaming in the field near
our house, collecting rocks, sticks, seed pods, and bits of hay. Later, in
the 1980s, I read about Elinor Goldschmeid’s theory of “heuristic play,”
which favors the open-ended discovery activity of young children when they
are given real objects to play with instead of toys.
You can start to replace your child’s
plastic toys by creating a treasure basket full of real world objects. These
can include shells, gourds, stones, pine cones, dried flowers, bricks, and
sticks, as well as discarded household objects like cardboard tubes, boxes,
funnels, measuring cups, wooden spoons, and mechanical bits and pieces.
Babies love many of these objects too, so it’s never too young to begin
these natural play activities, with some thought given to safety, of course.
Thinking beyond ready-made toys, you can
help your children enjoy playing with the treasures that Nature has to offer
in every season of the year. Let them go barefoot. Let them explore what
happens when water from the outside tap mixes with dirt from a little garden
patch of their own.
The advantages of natural play are
priceless, not to mention the fun!
Wendy Priesnitz is the editor of Natural
Life Magazine, the author of
and the mother of two adult daughters.