Our childhood most likely includes memories of playing outside. Many of us explored a wooded area, waded in a creek, ran through a field, and hid from friends in tall grass. While those places still exist, they unfortunately don't seem to be nearly as accessible to our children as they once were. As park professionals and planners, there are small steps that we can take to help bring nature into our children’s lives that won’t take a tremendous amount of effort…or money.
What exactly is Nature Play?
A nature play area is an intentionally designed, dynamic, vegetation-rich play environment that nurtures a child’s affinity for nature. A true nature play area will always have at least one of the following components: wood, stone, living plants, water, sand or mud. While you don’t need to have all of the components to begin your nature play area, consider including as many as you can. Taking the first step to build a nature play area is always the toughest part, but in many cases all of the resources that you need may already be on your site and at your disposal.
Five easy steps to creating a nature play area.
· Trail Blazing – In many cases, providing access to a specific area is enough to get people to use it. Cutting a trail directly to a wooded area or mowing a path through a meadow provides people with a direct route to access natural areas. Making them ADA accessible is always encouraged, but in some cases may not be possible.
· Got Slope? – Use existing or manipulated topography whenever you can. On a small scale, use un-level grades or landforms to allow children to run up or roll down a grassy slope or hillside. On a larger scale, take advantage of a swale, ravine or creek bed (wet or dry) and allow kids to collect, divert and play in the water, dirt or mud.
· Recycle and Reclaim – All park districts and communities deal with the removal of trees due to disease or weather related events. The stumps, trunks and branches from these trees provide an almost endless supply of material for tree forts, log steppers, balance beams and decorative benches. Large stones and boulders excavated from construction projects can also be reused as stepping stones, small climbing walls, ditch crossings and seating for outdoor classrooms.
· Promote Tree Hugging – Strategically layout your nature play area around existing trees, as shade is always in high demand. Consider planting a grove of fruit trees, as they will provide beautiful flowers and attract wildlife in the spring, fruit in the fall and understory play all year.
· Go Native – One of the most cost effective ways for children to engage wildlife is to install native plant material for pollination, nectar and feeding. Select deer resistant species and purchase plant material in bare root form or plugs to save money. Planting native species can provide an exciting play environment for children while yielding minimal long-term maintenance.
Try and seek out unique, natural characteristics within your parks and take advantage of them when you can. You’ll be surprised at the tools that nature has provided you with and how popular these areas will become.