Natural Construction Settings

Natural construction supports open-ended, creative, and free play using diverse natural materials such as sticks, tree limbs, large leaves, and bamboo. Children can construct anything they desire and are capable of imagining. The only limit to the many variations of forts, cubbies, clubhouses, hideouts, and dens is children’s imaginations. The setting needs to be kept stocked with prepared natural loose parts (storage racks recommended). Dress-up props add play value. May be combined with a Deck.


Natural building materials. Natural construction materials should be diverse in shape, size, texture, and potential use. Larger “structural” natural materials can include logs, hay bales, branches, bamboo and tree cookies that children can use to build forts, walls, and hide outs. Branches and bamboo poles should not be more than 3 feet long.

Natural loose parts, such as leaves, sticks, small pieces of wood, and move-able stones can be stacked, manipulated, and re-arranged in infinite combinations. Use components found and pruned from the outdoor learning environment (OLE) for free materials and show children how they can harvest their own materials for play. Prepare all natural materials for child use by removing or sanding sharp, splintered edges and protrusions. Ensure provided items are age-appropriate.

Manufactured. Manufactured materials aid in children’s creativity and “building” process, providing them with tools that expand play opportunities. Valuable manufactured materials include tarps, buckets, shovels, PVC pipes, cardboard boxes, tubes, used tires, light plastic barrels, and more. All manufactured materials should be child-safe, age-appropriate, and non-toxic. Be creative with recycled materials and engage families by asking them to contribute household items.

Design Considerations

Location. Choose an area that includes trees, logs, fences, walls, or posts to provide a structure for children to build against or create a permanent armature to support children’s ever-changing, imaginative constructions. Consider storage solutions for materials and sun protection when locating the construction play setting.

Plants for play. Design natural construction settings with adjacent plants that can be used and harvested by children to expand play and learning opportunities. By caring for and then harvesting plant material, children learn about natural cycles of growth and decay. Suitable plants include perennial flowers such coneflower or lavender, perennial grasses, and trees or shrubs that shed branches, leaves, and seeds.

Storage. Storage methods should allows for autonomous and independent play while minimizing clean-up for teachers and caregivers. 5-gallon buckets can be used to organize materials by type and size. Metal or wooden storage shelves are ideal for ease of use and durability. Covered storage areas, including sheds, covered shelves, and lean-tos protect construction materials from the elements and increase longevity. Although covered storage may increase initial cost and planning, materials will have to be replaced much less frequently.

Shade. Provide shade for extended periods of play in natural construction settings. For younger children playing with smaller components, temporary shade settings such as shade sails, pergolas, and umbrellas may be used. For larger natural construction intended for older children, settings should be located in the shade of a tree or tree grove to provide adequate sun protection.

Health and Safety

  • All natural construction play materials should be prepared for child-use by removing protrusions and sanding rough or splintered edges.
  • All components in the natural construction play areas should be regularly inspected and immediately replaced if showing signs of damage or decay.