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Natural Play Spaces for Kids

Parents used to have a hard time calling children in to supper. Now they find it difficult getting kids to go outside. 

In response to the growing concern that too many kids don’t have enough contact with nature, parents and community leaders are building natural playgrounds in cities and towns across the country. Such programs represent a move away from manufactured play equipment to more free-form designs that incorporate plant material and such items as logs, rocks and sand.

And while one might think kids would miss spinning plastic steering wheels or riding on spring-mounted frogs, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

Parents and playground supervisors have found that a child is less likely to become bored when visiting a natural playground than in the typical up-a-ladder-down-a-slide configuration of a traditional play space. That’s because activity in a natural play area is far more open-ended and likely to spark a child’s imagination. And, as in most play spaces, children also hone their balance and coordination skills.

Planning Assistance

To bring natural playgrounds to their communities, Stadtfeld and others have sought guidance from theNature Explore program based in Lincoln, Nebraska. This resource is a collaborative project of the Arbor Day Foundation and the Dimensions Educational Research Foundation, groups dedicated to connecting kids with nature. When a community group has only a vague notion of how to plan a natural playground, Nature Explore consultants can help create a working design.

Indian Creek Nature Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, developed a natural play area in 2008 after the Cedar River overflowed its banks and flooded the facility. “In response we felt we needed to become a model for the community on how to deal with runoff as well as being innovative on play spaces,” says Jan Aiels, the center’s education facilitator at the time.

Aiels attended a workshop at the Arbor Day Foundation and came away with an idea for what is now known as the Sense of Wonder Trail. It’s a series of activity stations that include a rock pit to dig in, a frog pond, an area planted with hundreds of native wildflowers and a construction area with logs and willow sticks fetched by the staff from the property’s wetland and left lying around for kids to use creatively. There’s the Deconstruction Log, a decaying tree trunk covered with moss, fungus and lots of insect life ripe for study.

Existing asphalt was torn out and replaced with Grass Pave, a permeable paving system made with recycled materials. It looks like lawn but is strong enough for wheelchairs to roll over yet porous enough for rainwater to soak through.

Engaging the Imagination

Megan Hughes says her daughter, Hannah, loved visiting the Sense of Wonder Trail as a small child. Sometimes they’d invite friends to tag along and Hughes saw fellow parents overcome initial reservations about their youngsters interacting with nature. “They would say, ‘Oh, don’t jump on that rock’ or ‘Don’t climb over this’ but then they see their children do it and they’re just fine, and so the parents relax.”

That experience supports Nature Explore classroom design director Jim Wike’s theory about natural playgrounds.

With so much media coverage of potential outdoor hazards such as West Nile virus, Wike finds that parents are slightly ill at ease about their kids being outside. Wike, a landscape architect, views natural playgrounds as spaces for families to be more comfortable in outdoor settings and a way to get them onto nature trail systems.

Even in Nebraska, where corn is plentiful and glimpsed frequently along the interstate, very few kids have had any up-close, personal interaction with the plant. “Incorporating some stalks in a natural playground setting starts to give kids a connection back to space and place,” Wike says.

He also extols the way natural elements can help lift the spirits of children and families, especially ones dealing with adversity. Simply installing a few pots and raised planters in an inner city setting, for example, can provide a small, peaceful oasis.

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**These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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