Natural Play: Ditching
Fancy Toys for Sticks and Mud
By Wendy Priesnitz
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
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.
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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 my books.
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
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 Child Magazine and the author of