Play is really the work of childhood- Fred Rogers
As parents, we should encourage as much play for our children as possible. And though it might be easiest to head to the local playground with its towering metal and plastic structures, playgrounds that incorporate natural elements like logs and flowers tend to encourage children to be more active.
Nature play spaces, either inspired by nature or fully made of loose parts and other elements that are nature-made, are becoming more popular. Sadly, we don't all have one in our neighborhood.
Not to worry. You can easily, and gradually, bring in elements of nature play to your own backyard or school playground. From building a pond for wildlife, designing a sensory garden to helping your child create a stick fort, bringing in natural play elements is a cheap, (usually) easy and super fun family activity.
One easy way to bring in more nature play is by bringing in tree cookies to your backyard or schoolyard. Tree cookies, or tree discs, are simply discs cut from tree trimmings. They are a simple, affordable, and versatile way to bring in opportunities for outdoor play and learning. You can either fix the tree cookies in place to serve as “stepping stones” or keep them as “loose parts" for art and other learning.
Tree cookies can come in different sizes, though most of the time they are circular shaped. Cookies with a larger diameter are ideal for sitting, jumping, and balancing. These can be fixed in place for seating or used to create fun, winding paths and patterns around your yard. If creating a path, the tree cookies should be a minimum of 4 inches thick. Make sure to space the tree cookies closer together for smaller children and wider apart to create a more challenging obstacle course for older kids. Either way, this is a great balancing and gross motor activity that most kids need today.
Any rough edges on the top side of the tree cookies should be sanded. To make them last longer, the bottom side of fixed tree cookies could be slathered with polyurethane or oil-based paint to create a barrier against water being absorbed from the soil. Larger logs will require a chain saw with a sharp blade for a clean cut.
Loose tree cookies (which can be 1″ – 6″ thick and have a diameter of 3″ – 12″) are excellent loose parts play items. Kids will love to stack them, sort them, haul them around, use them as pretend dishware, or use them in a construction area as a building material.
Tree cookies are instant microhabitats for your backyard. Leave a few in place for a few weeks and then have your kids check underneath to see which critters have moved in. Have them keep a log to note the types of residents under the cookies.
One really fun fact about Tree Cookies is that they hold secrets. A child can read the rings to discover the life history of the tree. Many tree cookies will show varying sized growth rings (a neat history of weather and soil conditions), the formation of branches, bark layers, and other features related to the composition of one of nature's most beautiful creations. Every growth season, a tree adds a new layer of wood to its trunk and limbs. This means you can determine the age of a tree by counting its layers, or rings. Have children learn more about a tree’s life by examining the tree cookie. You may want to ask them to take their best guess at the age of the tree when the cookie was cut, if they notice any markings or scars and guess why they might be seeing them. You can take a thin tree cookie under the microscope to look more closely at the tree cookie’s texture and notice if there are any visible holes or channels that might allow water and nutrients to travel up the tree. (adapted from Project Learning Tree and Outside and Inside Trees by Sandra Markel, ISBN: 0027623130).
Need more ideas? This great resource includes a bunch of other great ideas for teaching kids with tree cookies.
Children can paint the tree cookies or draw on them with chalk. You can also buy smaller tree cookies with a hole drilled in that your child can decorate and then wear as a natural necklace.
Where to get tree cookies
Tree cookies are not hard to come by. The quick and easy way is to buy them. Many nature play vendors will have them including Adventurous Child and the Natural Playgrounds store.
You can also make them yourself, which is sure to be more fun to do with your kids but does require some equipment and time.
Start by looking around your community for free logs to slice up into tree cookies. Hardwoods are preferred to softwoods and recently cut wood is preferred to deadwood. Red cedar is ideal because it is resistant to decay and the cross-section of the trunks provides cookies with fun shapes.
Here's a great tutorial on how to make them from Project Learning Tree at the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.
Enjoy your tree cookie play!