Discover: How to Prep and Preserve Fall Nature Supplies for Play and Crafts

Learn how to easily prepare and preserve fall nature supplies like acorns, pinecones, and sticks for long-term indoor nature play, observation and study, or kids’ crafting.

Prep and Preservation of Nature Supplies for Kids’ Play – Table of Contents

One of my favorite signals that fall is on the wing is the sprinkling of richly-colored acorns, pinecones, and twigs across my backyard and neighborhood. Our hungry squirrels are quick to get a jump on the good stuff, leaving lots of stray caps, broken shells, and acorns dotted with the tiniest of little holes behind, that I like to rummage through for good nature play supply finds!

A collection of cleaned and preserved acorns pinecones and sticks sitting in colorful bowls on a large wood slice in front of a white background

Why Clean and Dry Nature Supplies for Play?

Now, if I were going to be using these for a quick impermanent art activity, an outdoor tinker space, or just a day of play before tossing back outside, I wouldn’t do a bit of cleanup or prep, but I like to keep a few handfuls of cool nature finds in a bin for sensory activities, art observation, and impromptu crafting. For THOSE items that I save for long-term use, I follow a pretty simple process to prep and preserve them, and here’s why…

While a bit of dirt and debris doesn’t bother me, our household is fairly allergen-sensitive. These lovely nature finds can sometimes carry in molds or have leftover residue from outdoor sprays that irritate allergies. And those pinholes in the acorns? Those are made by nut weevils – which aren’t anything to fret over, but they do leave little nut weevils larvae inside which will come crawling out this time of year – a sight that might not always be a welcome surprise.

A collection of cleaned and preserved acorns pinecones and sticks sitting in colorful bowls on a large wood slice

Especially if using these natural supplies in group settings, it’s always a good idea to do just a bit of cleanup and prep before use and long-term storage, so I thought I’d share the easy routine I’ve adapted and adopted. From a quick 20-minute bath, to a more comprehensive multi-step oven-drying and preserving process – you can take the bits and pieces you need or have time for, and try them yourself.

Better yet, your kids can help along the way as you clean, dry, and finish these up to become treasured nature play tools. It’s a wonderful opportunity to incorporate practical skills and observe the different ways these various seeds, pods, and sticks respond to heat.

A collection of cleaned and preserved acorns pinecones and sticks sitting in colorful bowls on a large wood slice in front of a white background

I use white vinegar in my cleaning process, and although I’m going to be focusing on acorns, pinecones, and sticks, as a general rule you can throw just about anything into a water bath with white vinegar if you’re simply looking for a quick and easy natural disinfectant.

I prefer white vinegar rather than bleach or stronger cleaners simply because it’s natural, non-toxic, and an overall gentler solution.

For examples of the many ways we’ve used natural fall supplies in kids’ art, crafts, and play activities, check out our loose parts leaf play ideas, paper bag mushrooms, gradient leaf banners, seed mosaic bird feeders, or twig and pinecone display hangers.

To dry and preserve your own acorns, pinecones, and twigs you’ll need:

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains Woodpeckers Crafts, Etsy, Blick Art Materials, and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

BASIC SUPPLIES:

  • Found acorns, pinecones, and sticks
  • A plastic tub or bucket
  • 1/4 cup of white vinegar
  • Water
  • Paper towels or old rags
  • Old cookie sheets
  • Tin foil or parchment paper

OPTIONAL SUPPLIES:

Safety note: If you have reason to be concerned about the risk of tree nut allergies (*different than a peanut allergy!*) our guidance is to refrain from acorn play (even when cleaned, dried, and preserved) until allergy testing has confirmed handling is safe. For more detailed information, scroll to the bottom for our note on tree nut allergies.

Prep and Preservation of Nature Supplies for Kids’ Play – DIY Instructions:

  1. Gather your nature supplies

    Head out to the backyard, peruse the neighborhood, or stop by a park and see what you can find! We try to take just what we need and be mindful of the many ways these supplies provide food and habitats to creatures of all shapes and sizes.

  2. Brush off and trim any rough edges

    Use an old rag to brush off any large concentrations of dirt, and trim any sharp twigs with garden shears, heavy scissors, or a handsaw.

  3. Soak in warm water with 1/4 – 1/2 cup of white vinegar

    Grab a bin or pail, fill it with warm water, add a quarter to one-half cup of white vinegar, then toss in your found nature supplies for a quick 20-30 minute bath!
    how to preserve acorns and pinecones for kids nature play step one
    White vinegar has proven antifungal and antibacterial properties, so it’s a great alternative to bleaches or other chemical cleaners for small-scale disinfecting projects like this.

  4. Let dry on a paper towel

    Once you’ve rolled them around in the bath and let them sit for a bit, lay out all of your nature supplies on paper towels or old rags and let them dry (preferably in the sun if possible!).
    how to preserve acorns and pinecones for kids nature play step two
    If you’re short on time, or won’t be saving these for more than a few days, you could stop right here. Let your supplies dry outside for at least 24 hours, then bring them in for short-term use.

  5. Cover a baking sheet with foil and preheat the oven

    If you’re planning on keeping these for quite a while, a good drying-out in the oven is a must because it gets rid of the moisture in all those nooks and crannies. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees.
    how to preserve acorns and pinecones for kids nature play step three
    Covering your baking sheets is an important step for two reasons. If you’re drying pinecones, it keeps sap that seeps out from gumming up your baking sheets. Folding the edges of the foil up also ensures there won’t be any small bits of bark or detritus that could fall to the bottom of the oven and create a fire hazard.

  6. Put in oven to dry (under full supervision)

    As a general rule of thumb, I tend to skip putting sticks in the oven as they seem to dry out quickly in the open air and, honestly, make me a bit nervous in the oven – ha!
    how to preserve acorns and pinecones for kids nature play step four
    For the acorns and pinecones, bake on separate trays at 200 degrees Fahrenheit – watching the oven continuously for safety’s sake. My pinecones usually take about 20-30 minutes to dry – you’ll know they’re ready when the scales start to spread open. I typically leave my white pine pinecones in for another 15-20 minutes so the sap runs – it gives them a nice, natural gloss that dries hard (and smells wonderful!).

    The acorns take about 2 hours – there isn’t really a “sign” they’re done, but they may begin to brown and get too warm if you leave them in much longer. Once cool, your nature supplies are ready for use in arts, crafts, and play activities!

  7. Finish or seal (optional)

    This is an optional step that I use sparingly, but you may prefer depending on how you’re using your supplies. If you’d like your supplies to have a glossier finish, spread them out on a piece of wax paper and spray them with a sealant, or brush on a layer of Mod Podge (or similar clear finish). Wait 24 hours to fully cure before use.

Two cleaned and dried acorns sitting next to each other on a white background for comparison

Finishing your nature supplies – pros and cons…

I’m trying to be more conscious of how we use, and eventually dispose of, our natural supplies. I’ve opted to finish *just a very small selection* of our nature supplies you can let the pros and cons below help you decide what you’d like to do!

PROS:

  • A finish brings out the natural color of the nuts, cones, and wood, and adds some variation of appearance (note the difference in the finished and unfinished acorns in the photo above).
  • It keeps moisture and little bugs from working their way inside.

CONS:

  • A shiny sealant changes their texture and sensorial properties.
  • A finish makes them impossible to toss back into the garden.
  • The sealant may yellow or discolor your nature supplies over time.
An assortment of cleaned and dried pinecones

Tips for using and storing nature supplies

Note: We prefer to shop locally or use what we have at home, but this list contains Woodpeckers Crafts, Etsy, Blick Art Materials, and/or Amazon affiliate links for reference. As Amazon Associates, we make a small commission on qualifying purchases.*

  • Store in a cool, dry place. I keep all of my natural nature supplies in a covered plastic bin with a small box of baking soda. The soda keeps everything nice and dry, and the bin makes it easy to dump right out in the garden when we’re ready for a new round of nature items.
  • Keep great substitutes on hand. On occasion, I’ve opened up my bin to find some great pieces of bark that have just crumbled to bits, or a few of our finds are looking a little worse for the wear. In these instances, it’s always handy to have some good substitutes at the ready. On short notice, I’ve found felt flower pieces, faux leaves, wooden acorns, etc. all make great substitutes (and an interesting derivation from the norm). You can find some of my personal favorites here.
A collection of cleaned and preserved acorns sitting in colorful bowls on a large wood slice in front of a white background

A Note About Tree Nut Allergies

Unlike peanuts, acorns (…and walnuts, hickory nuts, pecans, etc.) are tree nuts, not legumes. While children can develop tree nut allergies, peanut allergies and tree nut allergies don’t go hand-in-hand – a child may have an allergy to one and not the other. As stated above, if you are concerned about the risk of nut allergies, our guidance is to refrain from play with acorns (even when cleaned, dried, and preserved) until testing has confirmed handling is safe. Wooden acorns are a decent substitute if you’re unsure!

The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has this to say about acorns: “Acorns are botanical nuts of oak trees. They are not a common allergen. Anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) due to contact with acorns would be very rare. There are case reports in the medical literature of allergic reactions after eating acorns. This was thought to be caused by cross-reactivity due to a pollen allergy and not due to nut allergy. Contact with acorns would pose a low risk of systemic reactions, even in someone with a tree nut allergy. Washing with soap and water would get rid of the allergen.”

When it comes to touching or inhaling other types of fallen tree nuts, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, “there is no significant risk associated with a tree nut allergic person engaging in activities in close proximity to a tree, even with nuts on the ground around the tree. But it should be noted that skin contact with nuts outside of the shell does pose a potential risk, and indoor aerosol inhalation could cause an aggravation (though rare).

A collection of cleaned and preserved acorns pinecones and sticks sitting in colorful bowls on a large wood slice in front of a white background


*A note about affiliate links: We strive to use simple, earth-friendly supplies that can be purchased locally whenever we can, but sometimes we find the best universally available options, a rare eco-friendly find, or a niche product only available on Blick Art Materials, Amazon, Etsy, or Woodpeckers Crafts. When included in our supply list, these products are affiliate links, and if you click through to make a purchase we receive a small commission that helps us re-order these supplies!

Amanda Eldridge
Amanda Eldridge

With a passion for cultivating imagination, Amanda aims to help kids and families discover their creative potential through art, play, adventure, activism, conservancy, and community. Amanda has a background in graphic design, environmental design, and art curation. When not playing with ideas and designs for barley & birch, she enjoys working in freelance design, art, and illustration.

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