Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

Playing Wild

Volume 3 Number 2 - October 2006

Fiona Danks


All children deserve opportunities to play in wild places, yet many of today’s children do not have opportunities for free, unstructured play outdoors.  Young children engage with nature through informal environmental play, hands-on activities and immersion in wild places.  We aim to inspire and encourage families to explore wild places wherever they might be, introducing a wide range of fun ways to discover the natural world.

Botanic gardens provide magical oases of green – inspiring, accessible natural environments, and great places to play and have fun.  Games and activities suitable for a botanic garden setting might include making elf houses, colour cards, natural fancy dress and natural collages.


Running through long grass, climbing among spreading tree branches, making dens in the bushes, mixing petal perfume or making the world’s longest daisy chain – many of the most precious childhood memories are made up of outdoor experiences such as these.  All children deserve opportunities to play in wild places – to have access to somewhere they can experience a sense of freedom, where they can become absorbed in exciting adventures, imaginary games and amazing discoveries, and grow up feeling comfortable with nature. 

It might be lack of places to go, it might be fear of going into the woods or the park, it might be the irresistible indoor temptations of electronic gadgets and virtual worlds, or it might be lack of time in a hectic scheduled lifestyle.  Whatever the reasons, many of today’s children do not have the opportunities for free, unstructured play outdoors that previous generations took for granted; they may have a greater awareness of global threats to the environment, but they probably have a very limited understanding about what creatures live in the pond down the road, or what plants they might find in the park. 

Our love of nature and desire to instil this in our own children inspired us to write Nature’s Playground, (see resources). We aim to inspire and encourage families to get outside to explore wild places wherever they might be - the back garden, a local park, open countryside, or perhaps a botanic garden.  Informal environmental introduces fun ways to explore the natural world.  The most effective way to engage young children with nature is not necessarily through formal education programmes – they respond best to hands-on activities and immersion in wild places.  By fostering and developing a child’s innate curiosity in nature, perhaps we can encourage them to grow up with a desire to look after the world; we don’t just want them to learn about nature – we want them to learn from it.

Where do botanic gardens fit in?

Botanic gardens provide magical oases of green, often within urban areas – they are inspiring, accessible natural environments easily reached by large numbers of people who might otherwise find it difficult to get to the countryside.  These safe but open spaces are not only wonderful places to learn about botany and ecology – but they are great places to play and have fun.  Here children can run around, play hide and seek, use their senses to explore nature’s diversity, and let their imaginations roam free.

Games and activities suitable for a botanic garden setting

Nature’s Playground aims to introduce children to the natural world through a wide range of activities; whether they have scientific or creative minds, whether they have lively imaginations or just like to run around and explore, we hope that each child will find something to suit them.  Here are a few games and activities from Nature’s Playground suitable for children and families to enjoy in a botanic garden.

Elf Houses

It only takes a few tiny twigs, leaves and seeds, an inspirational setting and some imagination for children to start using natural materials to create miniature worlds.  Perhaps they would like to create tiny houses or castles for elves, or a miniature table set for a fairy feast or a soft bed for a pixie to lie on.   Stories of miniature people or worlds might be used to inspire this game, which encourages children to look at natural materials in new ways, using them to intricately construct little houses or forts, or whatever their imaginations demand.

Colour cards

The natural world bursts with colour in every nook and cranny  – and encouraging children to look carefully and closely for fragments of colour opens their eyes to all sorts of other tiny details as well, such as a germinating seed, an ant collecting a piece of leaf, or a butterfly supping nectar from a flower. 

Before doing this activity, prepare some colour cards from cardboard cut into small squares or rectangles; onto each piece of card stick a length of double-sided sticky tape.  Provide each child with a card and remove the top layer from the tape to provide a sticky surface on which to stick tiny fragments of natural colour – they might collect fallen petals, seeds, leaves, flakes of bark or even soil or tiny stones.  How many different colours and textures can they find? Can they make a picture or pattern?  Can anyone find all the colours of the rainbow?  How long will the colours last? 

Natural fancy dress

Try weaving natural materials into imaginary games and adventures, perhaps some long leaves could become rabbit ears, forked twigs might become reindeer antlers or try transforming the children into birds with leafy wings.  Or try creating something a little more ambitious by encouraging the children to collect natural materials from the ground, which can then be made into a leaf cape, a crown or a hat or some jewellery such as a necklace or a brooch.  We celebrated autumn’s colours one year by making hats and crowns; children of all ages joined in, creating all sorts of wonderful headwear by sticking leaves and seeds onto strips of cardboard covered in double-sided sticky tape.  Some went on to thread seeds onto wool to make necklaces and made masks by sticking leaves over mask templates.

Natural Collages

Harcourt Arboretum, part of the Oxford Botanic Garden, is an inspirational place for children’s games and activities; here we gathered sticks and made the outline of a huge snake winding through a woodland clearing.  The children rushed off to collect fallen leaves, seed and cones, which they used to decorate the sections of the snake in intricate detail.  One young boy and his dad decided to make their own picture, creating this elegant bird from cones, seeds, twigs and feathery conifer foliage.   

Encourage children to collect fallen treasures and to create pictures and collages on the ground.  They might want to use sticks to make a frame for filling with a picture, or they might want to make a pattern – let them be inspired by what they collect and by the garden around them.  Many children find it hard to leave their creations to the mercy of the elements, but try to record their handiwork by taking photographs.

For those who prefer to make something to take home, try making a mobile by hanging the collected treasures from a stick.  A skewer or bradawl may be required to make holes in some of the seeds, which are then threaded onto wool or string.  

For information about obtaining a copy of Nature’s Playground please see resources.
Photographs by Jo Schofield

Resumé - Jeux sauvages

Tous les enfants méritent d’avoir la possibilité de jouer dans des endroits sauvages, cependant un grand nombre d’enfants d’aujourd’hui n’ont pas l’occasion de jouer à l’extérieur librement et sans contraintes. Les jeunes enfants se lient à la nature par des jeux environnementaux informels, des activités ‘à toucher’ et l’immersion dans des endroits sauvages. Notre livre ‘Nature’s Playground’ (‘L’aire de jeux de la nature’) voudrait inspirer et encourager les familles à explorer les endroits sauvages où qu’ils se trouvent, en proposant un large éventail de façons amusantes de découvrir la nature.

Les jardins botaniques offrent des oasis vertes magiques – des environnements naturels accessibles, inspirants et des endroits magnifiques pour jouer et s’amuser. Les jeux et activités qui conviendraient pour un jardin botanique pourraient inclure la confection de maisons d’elfes, des cartes de couleur, des déguisements et des collages à base d’éléments naturels.

Resumen - Jugando en lugares silvestres

Todos los niños merecen la oportunidad para jugar en lugares silvestres y naturales, a pesar de esto, no se les da esta oportunidad ya que no la tienen la libertad de jugar fuera de casa. Los niños pequeños se atraen a la naturaleza a través de actividades manuales y se absorben con los lugares silvestres.
Nuestro libro ‘la naturaleza campo de juego’ (Nature’s Playground) tiene como meta inspirar y animar familias a explorar estos lugares silvestres dondequiera que estos se encuentren presentando un amplio rango de manera entretenida de como descubrir ese espacio silvestre y natural.
Los jardines botánicos proporcionan oasis que inspiran, son el acceso mas fácil al medio ambiente natural, en pocas palabras son lugares extraordinarios para jugar y divertirse. Entre los juegos y actividades adecuadas se pueden incluir el hacer casas, tarjetas con colores, fiestas de disfraces y colages naturales.


Fiona Danks
c/o Frances Lincoln
4 Torriano Mews
Torriano Avenue
London NW5 4RZ