Engaging Children with a Nature Based Environment

“Access to active play in nature and outdoors—with its risks—is essential for healthy child development. We recommend increasing children’s opportunities for self-directed play outdoors in all settings—at home, at school, in child care, the community and nature.” (www.childnature.ca)

In the summer of 2015, Pinecrest Queensway Headstart Nursery School started our first phase of transforming our playground. We met with a playground company in the early spring and began visiting other programs within the community to assist in brainstorming ideas. The children were excited to participate in all the processes and transformations of the yard. Children need variety in their play spaces; they need to be able to move from active, to imaginative, to passive play zones. The best playground designs encompass the complete site.

PQ pic 1The first phase included a carpenter adding counters, benches and a mud kitchen to our wooden play house. By doing this it has increased the children’s imaginative play. They now use the benches, counters and mud kitchen for playing house, store fronts, lemonade stands, mixing, collecting etc. Building benches around two of the large trees created space for quiet reading areas, cuddling up with educators or a space to just sit and reflect. Three new raised garden beds were added in this phase and we successfully grew tomatoes, peppers, beans and a beautiful flower garden. The children took pride in watering, weeding and checking on the progress each day. New asphalt was laid for the bike path around the sandbox creating a continuous path and preventing a bottle neck. We believe that playgrounds should offer endless opportunities for growth and play for children of all ages, abilities and play styles. Adding a tree tunnel in the sandbox has created many opportunities for hide and seek, climbing, jumping, balancing, mobility, strength, executive function, imagination and coordination.

PQ Pic 2.jpg


Recognize the Difference Between Danger and Risk – Risk means the types of play children see as thrilling and exciting, where the possibility of physical injury may exist, but they can recognize and evaluate challenges according to their own ability. Risk is giving children the freedom to decide how high to climb, to explore the woods, get dirty, play hide ‘n seek, wander in their neighbourhoods, balance, tumble and rough-house, especially outdoors.” (www.childnature.ca)


pic 8.jpgDuring the winter of 2015/2016, we met with the teachers from Dr FJ MacDonald School which is where we are located to brainstorm ideas of what new elements they wanted to see in this new space. The kindergarten classes sometime share the yard space so we partnered with the Ottawa Catholic School Board to have the west side of the playground fence extended to make better use of space. We now have doubled the size of our play space. The second phase of the playground took place in the summer of 2016 where we hired a landscaper to help us design more of the natural elements. A playground should blend seamlessly; incorporating connective pathways and terrain changing hills; making use of different ground cover materials and incorporating trees, shrubs, seating and shade. Over the summer months, the landscaper added a hill with a top platform and a slide cutting through the middle of the hill. Previous to this our yard was very flat. Now with a change in the land formation this opened the doors to the children for many opportunities. The children use the hill for running, rolling, climbing, crawling and sliding. Four more raised garden beds were added to expand growing capacity. The children develop new skills and learn about science and nature from growing their own food. The teachers from Dr. F.J. Macdonald School incorporated these garden beds with their curriculum planning and have offered their support in getting “the Green Team” to assist with watering and planting.

PQ Last images.jpgPhase 3 was our biggest phase so we also included an outdoor classroom space with tree stumps and shade sails, musical instrument walls and some log balancing beams. This summer was particularly rainy so toward the fall we purchased a set of rain suits from MEC for the children. We wanted to expand our opportunities for outdoor time. They have been a huge success for children, staff and parents!

From this point on we have seen many changes in the children’s behaviour and attitudes toward outdoor play. They are stimulated by all of the natural elements that have been built into the design of the yard. They engage in activities with little teacher direction providing the teachers with more time to explore and enjoy the outdoors with the children. We encourage children to take appropriate and measured risks to further their social, cognitive, and physical development. Playgrounds are places where children thrive; where imaginations run wild.


“An essential component of How Does Learning Happen (HDLH) is seeing children as competent, capable of complex thinking, curious and rich in potential. Children are born into the world curious, their brains seeking meaning for experiences they encounter. Children need opportunities to act upon this curiosity through open-ended activities that allow them to explore, ask questions, experiment and play. Spaces should inspire and engage curious minds – looking at nature, following a stream, making a stick boat float, digging and playing with leaves.” (Educated by Nature)

Michelle Crogie, RECE
Kelly Lehto, RECE
Pinecrest Queensway Headstart Nursery School