Bringing the Outside in with a Nature Center

Have you ever noticed how moving one thing out of a room sets off a chain reaction? In this instance, it was removing our living room sofa that inspired the creation of a nature center. 

Let me back up a bit. Our elderly dog was on medication that made her incontinent, and one lovely morning I discovered that her urine had soaked through the sofa cushion and onto the floor beneath. Yeah. I feel your solidarity friends. After I pushed the sofa out the front door, I went on a bit of a cleaning frenzy. I slid the coffee table up against the front windows in the process of washing the floor, and inspiration hit. I could picture the kids sitting at the table with the light pouring in. 

I thought it would be special to bring more of the outdoors in, and have a place to explore some of our natural treasures (mostly the things the kids have picked up and put in their pockets while outside). I spent a few days thinking about what I wanted to include and how we would use it. I had already determined I wanted natural elements, and that inspired the thought of including our nature-related books. 

I cut some branches from the yard and zip tied them to the table. I tried to pick branches that would reach out over the table like a canopy. It made a bit of a mess initially and I might have gotten stabbed once or twice, but it was totally worth it. I put together a tray with some natural items, and set out the magnifying glasses for further exploration. I filled a jar with smooth stones and added a basket of pine cones. The books went into a basket on the window sill, but I may end up setting them on the floor off to the side so they’re easier to reach. I like that the basket has a handle so we can bring the books outside or to another part of the house. I added some toy forest animals and a basket of wood logs/coins. 

My 5-year-old had a chance to explore the nature center first since her younger brother was still napping, and she was surprised and delighted with the branches (“Look, Momma! There are trees inside!”). She looked around at everything and then started by touching some of the smooth stones in the jar. She noticed the magnifying glasses and used one to check out the items on the tray. Then–here’s the best part–she asked to sketch some of the items on the tray. I totally had one of those “why didn’t I think of that?!” moments while she went to get her sketch pad and some crayons. She drew a circle and called it a rock, and then said, “no, I’m going to draw a girl holding a rock”, so the rock became the girl’s head. 

My 2-year-old woke up from his nap and came downstairs to play. He immediately wanted to empty the container of rocks and put them back in (and then empty the jar again). He picked up all the items on the tray in turn, and then joined his sister in drawing. 

I had put out a couple of old throw pillows on the floor so they could sit or kneel at the table, but sitting really didn’t work well and they got tired of kneeling. They went to grab their chairs from the other room and settled into drawing for a while. Since then, I have added a couple stools that I borrowed to get a sense of what would be comfortable and what height would be best with the table. 

In addition to stools, observing the children use the nature center has prompted me to think about other items I’d like to include and/or rotate. I have some beautiful nature illustrations I’d like to hang, but I want to make or buy some rustic frames for them first. I love the idea of having a bird’s nest in the branches, or perhaps having the kids make their own nests that we can display. 

We have seen birds in the bushes outside the window, so this week I added a window bird feeder so we can (hopefully) observe them up close. 

More and more I am inspired by bringing nature inside. One of the ways we can show our children that we value the natural objects that they have chosen is by displaying them and making them available for further exploration. If you don’t have space for a table, a nature shelf is another great way to incorporate natural elements inside. If you have young children or an infant, a display shelf hung up on the wall might work best for you. Placing objects in a zip top bag or in clear plastic bottle are ways to make exploring natural elements safer for littles. Having them explore and exposing them to natural materials is valuable and can be done in a safe way. I hope that my experience helps you to look around your house and yard in a new way as you look to gather materials to display and allow your children to experiment. Allow their creativity to inspire you. 

I have also found the nature center to be a great place to put out a variety of activities. When the kids come downstairs in the morning, they often stop by the nature center and look at/touch some of the things that are out. I’ve been brainstorming about how I can add little surprises for them to wake up to–like little provocations to start off their day. Creating the nature center has been a satisfying creative outlet for me. It has also helped me to look at the other spaces inside and outside in a more open-minded way. Hopefully the next time I’m rearranging our space it will be without the prompting of the dog’s bladder. 

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