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Creative Play Outdoors Is Magic For Kids!

5 min read
Snail play in nature

A day in the life of a little Sapling is one filled with joy, connection, and so much imagination.


So many shoes await these adventurers in nature and outdoor play!

We head off to the forest with our packs loaded up with snacks, water bottles, and extra gear. The supplies we bring with us depend on our group and the current interests and inquiries that weave their way throughout our outdoor play time together. Sometimes it’s our magnifying glasses and clipboards so we can observe and document our findings, other times it’s a mud kitchen set to create a myriad of delicious pies, cakes, and soups. Whatever we bring with us, it’s minimal. After ample time exploring the forest with the same group of 3-5 year olds, there is little reliance on non-natural materials. The relationship they’ve built with the natural world is a thing of magic, and their play is inspired as much by their lived experiences as the forest landscape around them. In a world where we are conditioned to think more is best and consumerism has arguably reached an all time high, nature reminds us that we don’t need all that extra ‘stuff’ to keep us happy and content. The more time we spend outside with our group of Saplings, the more we see this to ring true. In the forest, a bucket of pinecones, leaves, and some mud transforms into a delicious batch of cupcakes. A long stick becomes a magic wand, ready to grant wishes and turn our friends into mystical creatures. An open space between trees is a house, a castle, or a secret hideaway. A low hanging branch is the perfect hiding spot when trying to surprise your friends. The list goes on, and on.


child with Saplings enjoying nature and outdoor play

On one particular day, I notice two students digging energetically into the ground. “What are you working on?” I wonder. “We’re making a trap, for a dragon!” One of them says, as they begin to layer their pit with small branches and leaves. “When the dragon comes this way, he’ll fall in, and we’ll have him trapped!” They exclaim, continuing to add foliage to the 3 inch hole that they’ve dug, while they chatter about what else they might need to catch this illusive dragon. I wander over to another student, busying themselves with a long piece of ivy, twirling it around an old stump. “Look, this is my coffee machine! It makes the milk foamy! Do you want a coffee?” I graciously accept, holding my cupped hands out as they froth an imaginary latte, eagerly awaiting my response as I pretend to take a big gulp from my steaming hot mug. Delicious. Nearby, I hear another group making whirring sounds, and I wonder where their imaginations have taken them today. As I get closer, I see they’re holding long sticks, sweeping them along the forest floor, clearing away loose branches and dirt. “We’re vacuuming and cleaning our house! We have a lot to do,” they announce, offering me up my own ‘vacuum’ to help them with their daily chores. In all instances, the students have not let the absence of a classroom full of toys inhibit their play; they simply don’t need what they don’t have, and I am left in continued awe at what the students can dream up with simply the loose materials that the forest provides them with.


boy enjoying nature and outdoor play

This kind of instinctual resourcefulness and ability to adapt takes time, practice, and patience. The first day of forest school looks very different from the 100th, and so we revisit the same places, day in and day out, building a relationship with our outdoor environment that is based on respect, curiosity, and care. Not all days in the forest are like the one narrated above; some are cold, and wet, and we all band together to move our bodies in ways that keep the blood flowing and the tears at bay. We can’t always be creative, resourceful, and resilient. That’s just life, and that in itself comes with its own host of lessons; knowing our limitations, accepting our struggles, and being okay with not being okay. But most of the time, when we arrive under the canopy of tall pines, hemlocks, and ancient cedars, our little group of outdoor aficionados can take comfort in knowing that they can be anything or anybody, and give gratitude to the forest that inspires us daily in our quest for creativity and innovation.

Don’t miss Saplings Preschool Program mention in our recent Early Learning story and their Nature School mention in our recent Independent and Private School story. You can also read about their Summer Camps here!

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Shannon Emery is a Forest Educator at Saplings Outdoor Program. She has been working with children in various capacities for over 10 years, both locally and internationally. She is inspired daily by the curiosity, passion, and wonder that young children have for the world around them. 

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