nature play

Books that Inspire Outdoor Play

By Auntie Shelley

Our kids love to read.  While we all know that reading is good for kids because it exercises their brains, improves their concentration and imagination, increases their vocabulary, etc., one thing that’s often overlooked is how reading can actually encourage outdoor play - if you pick the right books.

Chloe & Eva ready to thwart the Sheriff of Nottingham's evil plans

Chloe & Eva ready to thwart the Sheriff of Nottingham's evil plans


Over the years we have come across many books that really inspired our kids to play outside for extended periods of time.  Most of them have been classics that involve some kind of adventure.  Thankfully our neighbourhood backs onto a protected woodlot where our kids are free to run about slaying dragons and orcs, searching for hidden treasure, and outwitting the Sheriff of Nottingham.  Queen Jadis and her sledge have also been known to make an appearance or two, but so far we haven’t run into any talking beavers.  

Here is a list of some of our favourites:


The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkein

Hobbits, dwarves, wizards, trolls, goblins, elves, dragons, giant spiders, magical forests, battles….these books have inspired hours and hours of forest play for our family.


The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

Set in the fictional realm of Narnia, this series tells the adventures of children who play pivotal roles in battling evil and restoring the kingdom.  There are enchanted forests, talking animals, mythical beasts, an evil witch, and Aslan, the Great Lion.  We found The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe and Prince Caspian particularly inspiring.


Robin Hood

An outlaw and his band of merry men, a beautiful maiden, an evil prince, the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham, bows and arrows, sword fights, and it all takes place in a forest.  What more could you need?


Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss

A shipwrecked family that goes on to build themselves a huge tree-house to live in.  This is a classic adventure story.  Wyss wrote this book as a way to teach his sons about the natural world and self-reliance, as well as the importance of frugality, cooperation, love, etc.  The book provides detailed lessons about the natural environment, farming, animal husbandry, etc.  


Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

This is another classic tale of a shipwrecked castaway, only this time some cannibals are added to the mix.


Lost on a Mountain in Maine by Donn Fendler

This story is based on the author’s true account of being lost in the Katadhin Mountains for almost 2 weeks when he was only 12 years old.  This story definitely influenced Josh’s obsession with survival skills.  Just make sure you get the original version and not the recent graphic novel version which is awful.


The Call of the Wild and White Fang by Jack London

These are great books to read in the winter since they are set in the Yukon and involve dog sledding.  After reading these our kids made their own dog sleds out of Rubbermaid bin lids and string.  The older ones spent hours pulling the younger ones up and down the snow covered streets.


The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

These classics are sure to lead to raft building and searches for hidden gold.


While the novels listed above probably most appropriate for school-aged kids, Play with Me by Marie Hall Ets is one book that I love for toddlers.  It is a sweet little story about a girl who goes out to look for animals.  Each animal she tries to catch runs away from her - until she sits still by the pond.  Then they all come back.  I have found this book really helpful in teaching toddlers and preschoolers how to sit still and observe nature.





A Few Final Notes:

Eva with her  Lord of the Rings  inspired "Camping Cloak"

Eva with her Lord of the Rings inspired "Camping Cloak"


  • I have found that if we add one or two simple “props” from the book, outdoor play lasts even longer.  One of our favourites is what is now known as, “The Camping Cloak.”  When we read through The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings the kids were constantly raiding the linen closet, stealing blankets to use as cloaks.  We ended up sewing some real cloaks and the kids have spent countless hours running through the forests with them.  


  • A big spool of heavy string is a worthwhile investment.  It can be used to tie rafts together, as spider webs, to catch goblins, to make bows, etc.  It might seem simple, but the possibilities are endless.


  • If these books are above your child’s reading level, consider reading them aloud or have them listen to a recording. has great recordings of them.  


  • Although many of these books have been made into movies, I recommend avoiding the movies at least until your kids have read the books.  My observation has been that the books always inspire more imaginative outdoor play than the movies do.  


Have you found any books that inspired your kids to play outside?  If so, please share them with us in the comments section below.