Natural Play Materials and Ideas of How to Use Them

Natural Play

Outdoor natural play is very important. Obviously outdoor play in good weather – the odd trip out in the rain to splash in puddles may be okay, but who likes getting wet on a regular basis? I certainly don’t like getting wet as I supervise a play session. Parks, gardens and natural environments have some great opportunities for playing with natural materials. Water, mud, sand, wood, leaves and stones. That doesn’t mean that this time of year is out of bounds. Any glimmer of sun or a dry day it’s wrap up warm and head outside.

Outdoor Play Dough otherwise known as Mud!

If you’re lucky to have sticky clay style soil then you have your own source of outdoor play dough. Let your little ones squelch it through their fingers and mould it into different shapes. Try moulding it using play dough cutters and tools. If like me, you have bog standard mud get them making potions and mixing it with water, and any garden material they can get their hands on. What happens to the mud when it gets wet? What happens to it if you leave it in the sunshine? Does it feel different now? What’s the difference in adding a lot of water or just a little bit?


Wood as a pre-school natural play toy came to me while cleaning out our rabbit. My son who was 3.5 at the time loved the feel of the sawdust and would spend ages picking it up one piece at a time and putting it in his bucket. He’d collected lots of the sawdust and try and build piles high up. Definitely use sawdust outside it’s quite dusty and you wouldn’t want to breathe too much in or have it spread all over your nice clean house. Another obvious source of wood to play with are twigs. Dead twigs are lying all over the ground. Get your child collecting them. Can they arrange them in size order? Which are the fattest? Can you make a picture out of twigs? Can you make a broom?

wood for natural play


Who doesn’t love water play? I have never met a child who isn’t happy with a container of water, some cups, or other objects like watering cans. Certainly my two eldest would play for hours with the water table and need several changes of clothes. There’s lots of good ideas to make it interesting. Can you count how many cups it takes to fill your bucket? Learning to measure water by volume. What happens to objects when they get wet? What sinks and what floats? If you’re outside encourage foraging for things to use for a what will float experiment. Get an old paintbrush and let them paint with water on the patio – it’s Aquadoodle but free!


I have a pet hatred of sand pits. We have a big sand pit and a gravel pit in our garden. It makes my teeth itch to see my children lying in the sand happily playing. I hate the feeling of scratchy sand anywhere but hands and feet. They usually end up covered. We have an arsenal of trucks and diggers that get used outside; moving sand from one part of the pit to another. If you have very dry play sand it is almost like water play and will flow out of cups when tipped upside down. Create a natural play treasure hunt. Hide stones and other treasures and let them dig them up. Wet sand can be particularly fun. You can mould it into different shapes or sand castles! If you want some more structured sand play try these sand pit toy ideas.

child playing with pink bucket in a sand pit

Leaves and Stones and Other Delights

On walks I often give my middle child a bag to carry. Usually the green Peppa Pig one that came free with a set of books! Her and her brother collect objects that catch their eye and bring them home. Acorns, stones, leaves, mossy twigs, mud. Anything except green growing plants are fair game. We generally use them for crafting. Create a collage of leaves or leaf rubbings for the wall. Wash the stones in your bucket – how long does it take to clean them? Painting stones to create an eye catching art piece in your garden is good fun. Especially if you do the painting outside where a mess doesn’t matter.

What do Children gain from Natural Play?

Learning through play is fun. Encouraging them outside gives them fresh air, a bit of sunshine (if you’re lucky) and helps fine tune their muscle development. Picking up cups full of water, sand or mud of varying weights develops arm muscles. Running around scavenging for leaves gives fitness. Moulding wet mud and sand helps develop hand-eye co-ordination and motor control and dexterity. Unlike board games or play sets there is no right or wrong way to play with natural objects. It all comes down to their imagination. It is wonderful watching their thought process develop and change as new ideas on what to do enters their minds. While a lot of my blog is about toys and man-made activities I love natural play and the outdoors. I’m looking forward to doing these things all over again with my youngest son.

Hopefully he will not love tasting sand and mud as much as his siblings and I certainly hope he doesn’t try and eat a slug unlike his older brother…..