With the latest round of Nature Play grants open for submissions, you may find yourself asking the question “What do we need to increase the opportunities for our children to engage in nature-based outdoor play?” As the coordinator of Sticks and Stones Nature Playgroup, I found myself pondering this question last year. Along with…How could we better utilise the trees in our play space? How can we create a richer play environment with more physical challenges? What would assist our families to explore the natural environment? How can we provide opportunities for kids to use real tools? What do we need to take our playgroup outside of the fence?
Thanks to the generous support of the ACT Government and the Nature Play Grants Program 2018 I had the opportunity to answer these questions and trial a selection of gear. This is what Sticks and Stones Nature Playgroup bought and learned in the process…
Prior to the grant I had trialled stringing ropes between our trees to create a rope bridge balancing course. Being a shared space - this set-up had to be rigged up prior to, and pulled down after, each weekly session. The kids loved it and the parents loved watching their kids loving it, but the general feel was that it looked too difficult to set-up and families didn’t feel confident trying it at home.
To make the set-up and pack up easier, showcase a neat piece of kit and have something that could be used in a number of settings, I purchased a slackline. The product chosen was Slackline Industries Play Line as it’s a complete kit designed specifically for beginners. I found that the included tree protection wasn’t sufficient to go around most Canberra trees - so additional tree protection needed to be purchased (something I hadn’t factored into the grant).
This piece of equipment has been a hit at playgroup, public events and is suitable for adults to get onto and have fun too! Shop around as prices can vary substantially (this goes for all products!).
Walking on a slackline helps to improve balance and coordination. Slacklining is challenging, fun and there’s a great sense of achievement as kids improve their skills and ability to master it.
Mobile Monkey Bars
If you’ve ever felt disappointed by the lack of monkey bars on offer in play spaces or feel that your kids are not getting an opportunity to hang and develop their hand grip and upper body strength - this may be your solution.
The Slackers NingaLine 30’ Intro Kit has been one of the most popular items I purchased. Kids love to hang and swing from their arms - and the more confident ones love seeing the world upside down. The NingaLine is designed to be set-up between trees, can be set at a height suitable to your audience and costs a fraction of what fixed play equipment will set you back. The set-up and pack-up is straight forward which means it’s completely portable.
Magnifiers & Bug Catchers
Magnifiers are always a hit with kids. Being able to see the details of mini beasts or the forest that exists in mini worlds of moss and lichen take nature connection to a deeper level. Navir Bug Viewers are perfect for insects that you wish to study and share as a group. They have a container with a magnifier lid - keeping your creepy crawly contained as you share it with your audience of nature observers.
Magnifying Glasses are great when you’re on the move and want to study trees, plants and rocks to see what microscopic worlds they hide. I’ve found that our brightly coloured, Jumbo Magnifiers with 4.5X magnification have been perfect. They’re made of high grade plastic, not glass. Even when scratched (kids will accidentally drop them and be too rough) the lens works well.
Our Bug Catching Nets probably were the worst performer - not because of the product but the age of the children using them. Our good quality nets are perfect for catching delicate insects, but young kids in groups are not so delicate with them. A net ends up being a good item to carry rocks and nature finds, pretend fish with, etc. A good learning process.
Why use plastic replicas when you can use the real deal? Kids enjoy using real tools. A really simple and safe way to introduce tools is with stick shaping. For this a file and rasp set, and some F Clamps (for securing your sticks to a pallet off-cut) is the perfect equipment to get you started. They’re also easily portable items.
Mortar & Pestles add a new dimension to your mud or nature kitchen allowing children the opportunity to grind hard clay into dust, native nuts and seeds, petals for flower potions and to release the scents of herbs. I trialled marble and stone mortar and pestles and both have survived quite well considering some kids really give them a pounding. I’m considering trialling the same mortars, but with a wooden pestle to see if this saves chipping the mortars.
A Collapsible Folding All Terrain Utility Cart is my must have for outside the fence excursions - if I’m intending to take additional gear. I did a lot of reading through Bush School blogs and product information to understand what features to look for. The most important ones for me being fully collapsible, good wheels and wheels in each corner - this really helps with stability on rough terrain. My product of choice ended up being Cart-a-Lot and I’ve definitely carted a lot in it.
Mats & Organisers
I’ve found mats essential for setting out gear and providing a gathering spot for group activities. I trialled the beautiful recycled plastic type and practical canvas tarp variety too. For bush adventures I’ve found the canvas tarps best - they’re easy to pack up and clean, and multi-functional for sitting, can be strung up for shade, used as a loose part for cubby building and separating out clean and muddy, wet gear.
I also have a large Outdoor Organiser that can be laid down or hung between trees for holding tools, art supplies, etc. This product hasn’t worked as I would have liked for our sessions as I could do with more pockets and I found the straps and clips to be a little flimsy.
These are a really popular piece of equipment for a number of reasons: kids love to swing, it’s a great activity a parent and a child can share, encourages cooperation as it’s normal to see 2 or more kids sharing a hammock or swinging each other, provides a lovely peaceful container for kids who need some down time, and really adds to the cubby house experience. I regularly set-up 3-4 hammocks and they’re always occupied.
I hope the above gear list is helpful and if you would like to know more about the products, always feel free to contact Sticks and Stones Nature Playgroup. I’m only too happy to share my experiences and help you make the best gear choices with your grant funding or available funds.