Sensory Play

6 Ways to Bring Outdoor Play Indoors (Without the Mess)

Posted by Heather Dixon

There's something undeniable about the energy kids can get from nature. My own children can sometimes start the day on the wrong foot (read: they are not morning people), but their moods change completely as soon as they get out the front door. A short walk or bike ride to school and an entire day can be turned around.

The Outside Effect

There's a reason behind this. Several studies have shown that time spent in nature can improve our moods, reduce anxiety, and even promote cognitive development. Sure, getting outside is great when the weather is cooperating. But as many parents know, the window for perfect weather can be pretty small.

You can still play in the grass if you can't get outside! All you have to do is bring the outdoors in. It might not be quite the same, but there are still many ways your kids can connect with nature during indoor play without causing too much mess. Here are a few of our favorite nature-based activities for inside play. 

Paintbrushes, paint bottles and rocks lay strewn across a wooden table.

Painting rocks.

This craft never gets old for my kids. It became a big trend during the early stages of lock-down, allowing neighbors to put their creativity on display. From finding rocks with specific shapes to making animals (like dogs and cats, ladybugs, turtles, or fish) to painting emoji faces or even simple designs, painting rocks is fun and will keep kids connected to nature (and busy for hours!).

One of our favorite new ways to get paint rocks is making name rocks. Find a rock for each letter of your child's name, and let them get creative! If you need any inspiration, Pinterest has you covered.

Making art out of leaves.

Another simple idea is gathering up leaves and bringing them home to make easy, cute crafts. The options are endless: you can make people out of them, paint them, make a crown or a wreath, create a collage, do a leaf rubbing, or even glue googly eyes to make funny faces.

Small child holds leaf in their hand while adult hand holding a paintbrush paints a white dot on the leaf.

Creating nature mandala art.

Most mandalas are circular and involve spirals and other patterns. Nature mandalas are the same and use fallen items like leaves, small twigs, pine cones, flower petals, and shells (basically anything else you find nearby) to create a beautiful piece of art. Let your imagination run wild! 

Go camping inside. 

There's nothing quite like a good camp out. If you have the space, put up a tent, spread out some sleeping bags, and maybe even get some marshmallows - then allow the kids to "camp" for an evening. It's fun to do in the backyard, but it can be just as fun indoors. You can even add to the experience by grabbing some glow-in-the-dark bracelets or glow sticks, having a shadow puppet show, and making a picnic dinner. 

Preschool aged child sits outside a small tent filled with pillows and plays with small toys.

Making ice blocks.

This is a great sensory activity for little hands! After you've gathered up leaves, twigs, pine cones, and other fallen items from nature, bring them home and find a container to place them in that holds water. Different-sized containers are a great way to add some variety. Cookie tins work, as do plastic sandwich containers or even ice cube trays. Add water, then freeze the nature items in place. Your kids can either explore them while still frozen or play with them as they melt!

Filling a sensory bin.

A good old sensory bin is always a fan favorite. Fill up a container with rice or sand, and add smooth rocks, pieces of grass, twigs, or anything else you'd like your little ones to touch and feel. Afterward, you can pull out some of their toys like dump trucks or some of your older measuring cups and spoons and watch their little hands explore.

With a bit of creativity and a few materials, you and your kids can spend some time having fun with the outdoors, even if it is inside. 


Heather Dixon is a Managing Editor of a non-profit website and author of fiction. She spent over a decade in the marketing and advertising industry as a copywriter, and has also written about motherhood for a number of established websites, including Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, Motherly, Pregnant Chicken, Red Tricycle and others. You can find her at