Child of Nature

Giving kids natural spaces for play allows their creativity to shine through.

By June Corrigan

June 2012


Parents used to have a hard time calling children in to supper; now they find it difficult getting kids to go outside. According to the National Wildlife Federation, the average child in the US spends four to seven minutes in unstructured outdoor play a day—compared with more than seven hours in front of TV, computer and other screens.

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 other natural elements such 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.

Laura Stadtfeld witnesses it every day at the child care center she owns and runs in Casper, Wyoming. She put in a natural playground three years ago, and her charges are always coming up with inventive ways to use the space. Take the circle of recycled tree stumps that occupy one corner of her property. “At the moment the girls are big on pretending they’re ringmasters in a circus. They’re always telling everyone to ‘step right up’ on those stumps,” she says. Meanwhile, lost in a world of make-believe, the children are working on their balance and coordination skills while using earth-friendly materials.

Planning Assistance

To bring natural playgrounds to their communities, Stadtfeld and others have sought guidance from the Nature Explore program (www.natureexplore.org) 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.

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

Four-year-old Hannah Hughes loves visiting the Sense of Wonder Trail. “I’ve noticed she’ll stay at that natural playground far longer without getting bored or wanting to go somewhere else,” says her mother, Megan. Sometimes they’ll invite friends to tag along and Hughes has seen fellow parents overcome initial reservations about their youngsters interacting with nature. “They’ll 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.”

Hughes’ experience supports Nature Explore classroom design director Jim Wike’s theory about natural playgrounds. With so much media coverage of issues such as West Nile virus, the dangers of sun exposure and other hazards, he finds that parents are slightly ill at ease about their kids being outdoors. Wike, a landscape architect, views natural playgrounds as spaces for families to be more comfortable outside and a way to get them onto nature trail systems, exploring all a particular area has to offer.

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,” he says.

Wike 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.

The Nature Explore program counts 83 certified natural play areas in the US, with many more in the planning stages and requests for consultation on the upswing, putting more children in touch with nature in a healthy way.

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