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Using Sobel’s Styles of Play to Guide Toddler Nature Experiences

Last month’s nature blog covered the benefits and risks associated with spending extended periods of time outside with toddlers. Once you have considered the “why” and “how” of engaging toddlers in nature play, it is time to consider the “what.” What activities should toddlers engage in outside to best help them grow, learn and develop? And what framework can teachers use to guide their planning?

When I attended Cara Mia Duncan’s (from the Hathaway Brown School in Ohio) talk on toddlers and nature play at the World of Wonder Conference, she mentioned that she bases her toddler framework on David Sobel’s “7 Styles of Play.” A framework for aiding and enhancing play, rather than planning activities around discreet traditional academic areas, like reading and math, makes particular sense for toddlers.

Sobel identified seven different types of activities children throughout the world engage in when they are able to freely play in nature. These seven different styles are for children birth through early elementary ages, but for toddlers they offer a way to understand how play informs learning. Teachers can the styles Sobel has identified as a planning framework to support and scaffold activities that will lead to further development. This month’s article will focus on three of Sobel’s styles of play – Adventure, Fantasy and Imagination, and Maps and Paths – and consider how caregivers can encourage play in those areas.


An adventure implies that you don’t know where things will end up when you start out. For toddlers, these adventures build confidence, hone gross motor skills and reward curiosity. Nature provides adventures in the form of obstacles on a hiking path -- a log to walk across, stepping stones to cross a low creek, sticks to jump and trees to climb. For teachers wanting to enhance this sense of adventure, create a sense of mystery on a hike or walk by adopting a “what will we find behind this tree or around the next bend?” attitude.

Teachers can also encourage physical development by pointing out the obstacles and encouraging children to create their own. Ms. Duncan calls these “stick movement games.” They can involve lining sticks in a path and then following the path to the “treasure” at the end. My students found treasures are usually bits of moss or an interestingly shaped stick. Children can also jump over sticks, zigzag between sticks, or move in different ways from stick to stick (or tree to tree) to find out where they lead.

Fantasy and Imagination

Imaginative play fosters flexible thinking, collaboration and language skills. When children tell stories or engage in “world building,” they must plan, transfer ideas from one situation to another and consider multiple perspectives. Every year, the children at Wildwood Nature School go through a “house visiting” phase, where each child claims a tree or nook as their home. They then travel through the forest, visiting each other’s homes and practicing the real world activities they observe in homes. They brush their teeth, eat breakfast and sleep. We sometimes adapt books in outdoor play. The “Three Little Pigs” is a popular choice as it involves running from “house” to “house” while a wolf (imagined or played by a child) chases us. Teachers should feel free to bring puppets and other props outside to enhance and encourage storytelling.

Maps and Paths

Children build spatial knowledge when they recognize familiar places and remember how to get there. The children’s connection to the forest and its changes over time also helps build respect for and love of nature. When children point to a particular branch and say, “Remember the leaves on the spider web that we found over there” or lift up the same log where a toad had been hiding the week before, they are forming connections both to the place where an event happened and to the people who shared the experience with them.

Consider combining adventure play with maps and paths by creating a rule to guide a walk through the woods. For example, you may decide to follow a particular texture through the woods, going from one smooth find to the next until an unexpected destination is reached. Another option is to give children clipboards, crayons and illustrated tally sheets for children to “log” their path by making marks every time they see a tree, an animal, a fern or some other distinguishable characteristic of the path.

The styles naturally overlap, and children are rarely engaging solely in one style of play at a time. The key is to observe what children are already doing, trust that they are engaging in activities because those are the experiences they need and aim to enhance those experiences.


Sobel, David. Childhood and Nature: Design Principles for Educators. Stenhouse, 2008.

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