- Why are natural play areas important?
- What does a nature play area look like?
- What do nature play spaces offer over conventional playgrounds?
- Don’t natural materials decay faster?
- Will it attract animals?
- Are they safe?
- Are they more expensive to build?
- Does it include only natural materials or can man-made structures be included?
- Are they accessible?
There is a growing body of research about the many positive impacts of nature play on children’s social, emotional, intellectual, and physical well-being. Furthermore, outdoor nature play has been found to be the most common influence on the development of lasting adult conservation values. Author Richard Louv did a great job of reviewing these benefits in his best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature Deficit Disorder. Nature play has been found to:
- Provide opportunities for creative play
- Foster a love and appreciation for nature
- Promote healthy lifestyles and physical health
- Enhance academic achievement
- Foster a sense of place
- Strengthen social and verbal developmental skills
- Provide restoration opportunities
- Reduce stress and some symptoms of ADD/ADHD
- Encourage a strong environmental stewardship ethic
Unfortunately, many factors are converging to make nature play increasingly rare in American childhoods. There is significantly decreased access to unregulated green spaces where children can freely play, coupled with growing parental fears of letting children play outdoors without close supervision. Longer school days and more homework decrease the amount of time available for unstructured outdoor play and the allure and availability of plugged-in play is increasingly irresistible. Add to all of this the trend to over-schedule children in structured, adult-led activities and the unhappy result is that most American children no longer enjoy regular nature play (many spend an average of just 30 minutes per week in unstructured outdoor play!)
There are infinite variations of nature play areas (which is part of the excitement!) but there are certain components and activities common to natural play space design. Furthermore, when trying to explain or visualize a nature play space, “a picture’s worth a thousand words”. To learn more about typical nature play components and activities, as well as see examples of nature play& learning projects and products, visit our Nature Play Basics page!
Natural play spaces offer all of the opportunities for creativity that a conventional playground can, while, at the same time, providing an important early connection for children with nature and promoting future environmental stewardship. Natural play spaces also support children’s physical, intellectual, and emotional development. Furthermore, nature play spaces offer opportunities for kids to engage in creative, imaginative activities and increased social interaction. Instead of filing one-by-one to use a swing or slide, children engaging in nature play are building forts and gnome homes together, balancing on stumps while avoiding imagined dangers like lava or alligators, hiding in veggie teepees, pointing out a monarch chrysalis to classmates, and so much more.
Yes, when using real wood or trees or other natural materials, they may decay faster than pressure treated, or plastic structures. However, the benefit of natural materials is that if replacement is needed, they are usually easy to come by and very cheap. (Plus, the experience of seeing a log decay adds a natural learning experience and new dimension to the play area.)
While a hollowed out log or other hiding space may seem like a great place for animals to make a home, the regular activity of visitors will keep animals from setting up shop in these areas. Animals are protective of their homes, and won’t build a den where a five year old is marching through and re-arranging things! On the flip side, deliberately adding habitat features, gardens and other projects for wildlife in designated areas provides additional opportunities for children to observe and discover natural interactions.
One of the most common questions raised about nature play areas (and often a misguided reason cited for not installing them) is about safety. Natural play areas can be installed, maintained and utilized just as safely as conventional playgrounds. In fact, in many ways they can be safer than their conventional counterparts! Please see our Safety page for guidance on nature play area safety.
Often nature play spaces are built for less money than a large structured playground. The up-front cost may be mostly design fees and some materials for anything structured included in the design. However, since most materials are natural, they can usually be found from a local park (with permission), donated from a local landscaping or tree company, or even found on site. While you still must treat your surface area for fall zones, these fall zones are often not as high, and the amount of mulch or surfacing needed does not vary from a regular playground.
Also, many projects can be installed with volunteers. From eagle scouts, to local artists, business and even rock climbing clubs, you may find engaging the community in the design and development will pay off in labor for installation and maintenance.
Many nature play spaces include elements that are man-made. Vice versa, many conventional playgrounds can benefit from adding some natural play and discovery features! Some play areas include stages to encourage performances, drama and active imaginary play. Some may include artwork from local artists or children that can vary in scale from oversized to miniature. A fun element in nature play spaces can include man-made elements that give a nod to the local natural or cultural history of an area- maybe a small boat for a coastal town, or a train structure for a play space located near a train station. Some companies like Arbor Day’s Nature Explore and Earthplay offer a variety of items to enhance nature play and learning areas, ranging from natural (willow whips for tunnels & huts) to man-made (wooden water towers, art panels, etc.). Pinterest and Instructables offer a wealth of ideas for do-it-yourself projects. Many playground companies such as (but not limited to) GameTime, Landscape Structures, the Natural Playground Company and Themed Concepts, now offer “nature themed” play equipment which looks like natural items (hollow logs, climbable wildlife statues) but are actually manmade.
Learn how to make a natural play area accessible for those with disabilities by visiting our Accessibility page.