Blank Park Zoo
Blank Park Zoo

Open Daily, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
$20 adults, $15 children

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Open Daily, 9 a.m. - 5 p.m.
$20 adults, $15 children

View All Rates ›

Nature Play

Posted on February 26, 2020 at 4:38 PM by Blog Author

Everyone take a moment. Close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Now, think of an early childhood experience. Consider, where are you? What sounds do you hear? What smells, sights, textures? Who is with you? What are you doing? How do you feel?

Now, show of hands, how many of those memories were based in nature? With nature?

My memory is of a family road trip. All I really remember from this moment was driving along a road that was cut into the mountains. You know the ones. Walls of rock reaching up as high as the heavens. Then suddenly there was this field of yellow flowers. It was so beautiful that we pulled off the road and went exploring in the flowers. I remember them being taller than I was. I remember their stems being rough and scratchy. I remember feeling the wind blow across my face and the feel of the petals graze my cheeks. I remember my parents taking pictures and my brother and sister running around too.

I have so many more memories like the one above, running around in the back pasture of my house, down to the “magic creek,” digging for buried treasure, swinging on the tire swing. Early experiences in life can have a profound effect on how you view wildlife and nature. Now I spend every day trying to build connections with children and the natural world.   

What is nature play? Nature play is simply any unstructured activity that gets people, specifically children, engaged with the outdoors. The key word here is unstructured. Playing organized sports such as soccer, football, dance, etc. are all great for kids. These structured activities help build healthy habits, teamwork, social skills, and self-discipline, but unstructured play lets kids out of the box and gives them the freedom to explore, create and discover. Unstructured play in nature helps build that empathy, connection and love for the natural world.

At Blank Park Zoo, we offer several opportunities for nature play. We incorporate nature play elements into most of our education programming. Polliwogs is our class for children ages 1-2.5 years with their favorite adult. In this class, we bring the outdoors in through free play at different sensory areas around our classroom. We have sensory bins full of natural substrates and materials such as corn, pea gravel, dirt, bird seed and grass clippings. We incorporate sticks, pine cones, seed heads, flowers and leaves along with plastic and wooden animals for children to play with. These bins not only provide children the opportunity to explore nature, but provides them opportunities for small world play and building motor skills like scooping, pouring, stacking and cognitive skills such as cause and effect.


For zoo visitors, we built our Nature Playscape located across from the gibbon exhibit by the butterfly garden. This is a permanent space designed for children to climb, dig, pretend and explore. As long as the Zoo is open, rain or snow, the nature playscape is open!

tree fort

We also have a program called Free Play Saturdays. Free Play Saturdays is a free, monthly program that takes place at different Des Moines Public Library locations to encourage children to connect with nature and build family bonds.

At Blank Park Zoo, we encourage guests to take action for conservation and inspire children to become stewards of the natural world. Children must love the earth before we ask them to save it. Through nature play, kids develop empathy for and a connection with the natural world that we hope will inspire future action for conservation.

To read more on nature and child-led play:

8 Eye-Opening Ways Kids Benefit from Experiences with Nature

What is Child-led Play?

The Adult Role in Child-led Play – How to Become a Learning Ally

Learn by doing: How outdoor play prepares kids for achievement in STEM

Three prompts for deeper nature observation

Schemas in Children’s Play

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