Making mud pies, testing balancing skills to move acorns from basket to basket, making nature art, identifying animal tracks, collecting bugs, and building onto a fort using nothing more than sticks and leaves. These are just a few of the activities that children are doing to learn about nature in the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s Nature Play program—a new initiative to provide nature-based free play for children and families in the city.

Last autumn, two schools invited from the Milwaukee area—Hawley Environmental School and Allen-Field Elementary—made their way to Macaque Island at the Milwaukee County Zoo and walked up a cleared pathway into an inviting and open natural space surrounded by trees. This site had a variety of stations marked by a red bandanna. Zoo Pride volunteers were already waiting as children, their parent or guardian, and educators were invited to do one thing: play.

The importance of Nature Play

By playing outdoors, kids can let their imaginations run wild. With this idea in mind, the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s Education Department considered ways to get children and adults to interact with the natural world and learn through getting their hands dirty. What was once an idea of a “nature playground” has transformed into Nature Play. This program allows children to connect to a natural environment through problem-solving and free play while promoting an appreciation for the outdoors.

The program encourages children and grown-ups alike to not only explore the natural environment, but also to interact with one another while playing outside. This will help children and grown-ups step out of their comfort zones and connect with nature in a positive way. Playing in nature offers tremendous benefits for children such as increasing empathy, reducing stress levels, and improving motor skills and coordination. “Many of the students may not have a space like this to play in. Being fully immersed in a safe, natural area allows the students to explore and push their boundaries,” says Jessica Ciatti, education specialist at the Zoological Society of Milwaukee.

The program is just in its infant stage. In the coming months, the education department plans to invite additional schools—and engage even more families—to promote the benefits of play in nature. Hawley Environmental School and Allen-Field Elementary students returned this past spring to experience the site with new features in two different seasons. Like in most of their classes, the education specialists strive to have children grow in their understanding of animals. But, to understand the animal, you have to understand how it relates to its habitat. Connecting and having fun in nature can encourage respect and appreciation for wildlife and natural areas. The Nature Play program provides opportunities like this for urban youth and families that don’t have immediate access to wildlife and wild lands.

Blog contributed by Averia Flasch, grants administrator for the Zoological Society of Milwaukee

The Natural Resources Foundation of Wisconsin provided a grant to the Nature Play program to help expand and improve educational tools for the program.